After decades of gazing longingly at Mars, the world’s space agencies are finally turning back to look at Venus.
Last week NASA announced that it had picked two new missions to go to Venus – one, called VERITAS, to orbit the planet and another, called DAVINCI+, to plunge to its surface. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) is throwing its hat in the ring.
The ESA revealed Thursday that it’s sending its own probe to Venus – an orbiter called EnVision. The mission aims to study how the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and interior interact to create the infernal pressure cooker it is today. Together, the three probes spell a renaissance in Venutian science.
“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbor awaits us,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a press release. “Together with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program at this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.”
The NASA missions are set to launch between 2028 and 2030, and the ESA probe sometime in the early 2030s.
Venus’ climate became hellish long ago, but it may have hosted life
Venus used to be a lot like Earth. The two planets are about the same size, and they’re made of the same material. Scientists think Venus could have even had oceans in the distant past.
But something happened that drastically changed Venus’ climate. Today it’s the hottest planet in our solar system, thick with yellow, heat-trapping clouds of sulfuric acid. Its average surface temperature is a blistering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and its crushing air pressure is more than 90 times that of Earth’s.
The upcoming missions could help scientists understand how Venus became such an extreme environment, whether it was hospitable to life, and whether or not its volcanoes are still erupting.
The world’s interest in Venus was rekindled in September, when a new study suggested the planet’s clouds could harbor microbial aliens.
That’s because researchers found traces of phosphine – a gas typically produced by microbes on Earth – in the upper reaches of Venus’ clouds. However, a follow-up study suggested those trace elements weren’t phosphine, but rather sulfur dioxide, casting doubt on the idea that Venus could be habitable.
These new missions could help settle that debate.
“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface, all the way down to its very core,” Tom Wagner, a NASA Discovery Program scientist, said in a statement about the NASA missions. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
Grey, heavily cratered, and peering out from the black of space, Ganymede looks a lot like our moon. But the icy rock is more than 400 million miles away – it’s the largest moon in the solar system, and it circles Jupiter.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been rocketing around Jupiter since 2016, but on Monday, it zipped past Ganymede, coming within 645 miles of the moon. No spacecraft had gotten that close in more than two decades – the last approach was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 2000.
In just 25 minutes, Ganymede went from being a distant point of light from Juno’s vantage point to a looming, round disk, then back to a point of light. It was just enough time for the probe to snap five photos.
NASA released the first two images on Tuesday; they’re the most detailed snapshots ever captured of the gargantuan moon.
“This is the closest any spacecraft has come to this mammoth moon in a generation,” Scott Bolton, who leads the Juno spacecraft team, said in NASA’s press release. “We are going to take our time before we draw any scientific conclusions, but until then we can simply marvel at this celestial wonder – the only moon in our solar system bigger than the planet Mercury.”
Scientists believe that Ganymede may host an ocean of salty water 500 miles beneath its icy shell – which would hold more water than Earth does. It’s also the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetic field, which creates an aurora at its poles. Scientists hope the Juno flyby will help them learn more about both Ganymede’s ice shell and its magnetic field.
The first Juno image, below, captures almost an entire side of the ice-encrusted moon. Each pixel covers about 0.6 miles (1 kilometer).
This image is just from the Juno camera’s green-light filter. In the coming days, NASA expects to receive more images from the spacecraft, including those captured with its red- and blue-light filters. That will allow the agency to create a colorful portrait of Ganymede.
Juno’s black-and-white navigation camera also snapped a photo, below, of Ganymede’s dark side.
It’s visible thanks to light scattered from Jupiter.
China has landed its first spacecraft on the surface of Mars, according to Chinese state media.
The mission, called Tianwen-1, or “questions to heaven,” is the first to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
If everything went according to plan, a gumdrop-shaped landing capsule separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter on Friday evening and fell toward Mars. With the lander and rover safely tucked inside, the capsule plummeted through the Martian atmosphere, friction heating the material around it to temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
High above the red-dust Martian surface, a supersonic parachute had to deploy to slow the capsule’s fall. As the lander neared its destination, thrusters should have fired downward to help it decelerate. Then it should have lowered itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.
China has not released details about the state of the lander or rover. But if everything is in good shape, the landing would make China the third nation to ever successfully put a robot on the Martian surface. It’s the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971.
Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Landing was “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. Only half the spacecraft that have ever attempted a Mars landing have succeeded.
Now, China’s first Mars lander and rover are sitting in the middle of Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.
If all goes well, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil. The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. It’s set to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.
The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.
“Landing safely on Mars is a huge challenge, especially for China’s first soft landing attempt,” Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences, told National Geographic ahead of the attempt. “But it is a necessary step for Mars and deep-space exploration.”
The Zhurong rover has 90 days to explore Mars – for now
At 530 pounds, Zhurong is about the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA landed on Mars in 2004. It could take more than a week to deploy the lander’s ramp and roll the rover onto Martian soil, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum. Then it will open its butterfly-wing solar panels to soak up the sunlight and charge its batteries.
Once the rover is on the ground, it has about 90 days to study Mars. That’s its official mission timeline, but Spirit and Opportunity had the same three-month window and ended up exploring Mars for six and 14 years, respectively.
The Tianwen-1 orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet,” according to a journal article by Tianwen-1 scientists.
This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
China is about to attempt its first Mars landing – a feat accomplished successfully by only half the spacecraft that have ever tried.
Tianwen-1, as the mission is called, means “questions to heaven.” It aims to be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
The first steps are complete. The mission launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Now the orbiter is preparing to release a capsule carrying the lander and rover. The capsule must plummet through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute, then release the lander, which should fire downward-facing thrusters to lower itself to the Martian surface. If that all goes well, the Tianwen-1 lander will later deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil.
The landing attempt could happen as soon as Friday evening and as late as Tuesday (in Beijing, that’s Saturday to Wednesday), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
Any landing attempt would occur early in the morning Beijing time, the CNSA said. That would be evening on the US East Coast. Twitter accounts that monitor China’s space programs reported that a Friday landing would happen at 7:11 p.m. ET.
Landing is “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. If the Tianwen-1 lander safely touches down on Martian soil, it would be the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971. Success would make China the third nation to land on Mars.
The intended landing spot is in Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely that Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.
China’s 530-pound, solar-powered rover is set to explore the region and study its water ice. The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.
When the time comes, China’s gumdrop-shaped landing capsule will separate from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and fall towards Mars.
The capsule must protect the robots inside as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A supersonic parachute must deploy to slow the fall. As the lander nears its destination, thrusters have to fire downwards to help it decelerate. Then it should lower itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.
As with any Mars landing, the spacecraft must conduct this entire process autonomously. Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, and vice versa, mission controllers can’t communicate with the spacecraft in real time. When they receive the signal that the capsule is falling towards Mars, it will already be on the surface, dead or alive.
That’s why aerospace engineers refer to this part of a Mars mission as “seven minutes of terror.”
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing before its landing. “Success is never assured.”
Meet Zhurong: the 90-day Mars rover
The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. The process of deploying the ramp for the rover and getting it onto Mars’ surface could take more than a week, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum.
Zhurong’s name “echoes with the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing (meaning the planet of fire),” according to a CNSA statement. “Fire brought warmth and brightness to the ancestors of humankind, and fire lit up human civilization. Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire signifies igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration.”
Zhurong is set to explore Utopia Planitia for 90 Martian days, according to a journal article by scientists on the Tianwen-1 team.
Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal, according to the scientists, is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”
This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 13, 2021.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic on Tuesday unveiled its newest spacecraft, the VSS Imagine. It’s the first of the company’s third-generation SpaceShip III vehicles.
The commercial spaceflight company will begin testing the spacecraft this summer, conducting ground tests and glide flights out of its New Mexico Spaceport America. Virgin plans to eventually fly tourists into suborbital space and aims to eventually facilitate 400 flights per year at each of its spaceports.
The new vehicle, according to Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier, is integral to those plans.
“Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III Class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet. VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight,” he said in a statement.
The new vehicle has a more modular design than its predecessors, making it easier to maintain and reducing the time between flights, Virgin said. VSS Imagine will “lay the foundation for the design and manufacture of future vehicles,” according to the firm.
The VSS Imagine has a mirrored finish that provides “thermal protection,” but also gives the spacecraft a striking look, Virgin said. While VSS Imagine undergoes testing, Virgin will start production on its next SpaceShip III vehicle, VSS Inspire.
VSS Imagine is Virgin Galactic’s third spacecraft. Its first spaceship, VSS Enterprise, was obliterated in a fatal crash in 2014. Its next ship, VSS Unity, last flew in February 2019 and is set to undergo a test flight in May 2021.
Hundreds of people have already paid Virgin Galactic $200,000 to $250,000 for tickets to suborbital space.
Shares of Virgin Galactic rose about 3% in trading Tuesday following the new craft’s announcement.
NASA’s new Mars rover, a nuclear-powered robot called Perseverance, has successfully landed in the red planet’s Jezero Crater.
The rover’s touchdown is the first step in what could be a decade-long effort to bring the first samples of Martian rock – possibly including alien fossils – back to Earth.
The rover, lovingly nicknamed “Percy” by its engineers, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July and traveled 300 million miles to the red planet.
On Thursday, the capsule carrying Perseverance screamed through the Martian atmosphere at about 12,000 mph, released a 70-foot-wide parachute to slow its fall, then dropped its heat shield. That gave the rover’s cameras and radar system a view of the landscape below, which an onboard navigation system used to find a safe landing spot.
About a mile above the Martian surface, the capsule dropped the rover. A jetpack attached to the robot fired up its engines and steered Perseverance’s to its landing location, avoiding hazardous boulder fields, sand dunes, and 200-foot cliffs. Then the jetpack gently lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cords until its wheels touched the ground.
At about 3:55 p.m. ET, NASA mission managers received the signal that the rover had touched down, and mission control burst into applause.
Perseverance is decked out with cameras and a microphone that should have recorded its entire descent – a first for a Mars landing. Initial images and thumbnail videos could reach Earth as early as this weekend. NASA engineers expect to have full video footage of the landing after a few weeks. (It takes a long time for the rover to beam all that data across space.)
A hunt for ancient alien microbes
This is NASA’s fifth Mars-rover landing, but it’s the first interplanetary mission to search for imprints of past alien life.
Perseverance is poised to spend the next two years exploring the ancient river delta that fed Mars’ Lake Jezero about 3.5 billion years ago. Back then, alien microbes may have swum in the water that filled the crater and various rivers and lakes across the Martian surface.
As the river dumped mud and minerals at the mouth of Lake Jezero, it may have trapped colonies of microbes, forming fossil rocks called stromatolites. That’s what Perseverance will look for along Jezero’s ancient lake bed, shorelines, and river delta.
But first, the rover will spend the next few weeks checking all its systems and instruments. After that, it’s set to release the first-ever interplanetary helicopter for some test flights. Once the space drone has flown, Perseverance can begin hunting for signs of long-gone alien microbes.
The rover carries 43 sample tubes so that it can stash samples of rock and soil. NASA plans to send another mission to retrieve those vials and bring them back to Earth in the 2030s.
“Samples from Mars have potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a news briefing ahead of the landing. “Even now, NASA continues to study moon samples returned by the Apollo program more than 50 years ago. We expect samples of Mars to provide new knowledge for decades to come.”
Probing the history of a desert planet
Jezero Crater is the most dangerous landing site that any Mars mission has ever targeted, but the payoff could be great. Various mineral deposits across the crater’s bed, the river delta, the ancient shorelines, and the crater rim hold a wide variety of types of rocks and soil. By collecting samples, Perseverance could help scientists learn about all kinds of environments on the red planet.
The rover carries seven science instruments that can analyze Martian rocks. It can capture images of rocks and soil in UV and visible light, probe them with radar, scan with X-rays to determine their composition, and search for organic compounds with a laser.
NASA’s Perseverance team expects the rover to gather its first samples sometime in the summer.
The robot can also move around three times faster than its predecessors, so it could cover up to 10 miles in its first Mars year (two Earth years). After that, it’s likely to get an extended mission that could take it up the crater’s 1,600-foot-tall rim. There, it would analyze the deep layers of rock cut in the Martian crust, which were exposed by a space object that struck the planet and created this crater billions of years ago. That investigation could provide insight into eons of Martian history.
Even if Perseverance finds no alien fossils, that will be important information. To date, every habitable environment on Earth that scientists have examined has hosted life.
“If we do a deep exploration of Jezero Crater with the rover and its instruments … and we find no evidence of life, we will have shown that in at least one place, there is a habitable environment that is not inhabited,” Ken Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance, said in a pre-landing briefing. “If that’s what we find, it would tell us something important: that habitability alone is not sufficient, that something else has to be present – some, perhaps, magic spark – that causes life to occur.”
Perseverance’s cargo could revolutionize space exploration
The small drone Perseverance carries is called Ingenuity. After its system checks, the rover should drive to an open field, unfold its belly panels, and lower the little helicopter for the first-ever controlled flights on another planet.
Perseverance will attempt to record video of Ingenuity’s flights. They could be the first demonstration of a new way to explore other planets.
The mission will also test technologies that could support future human expeditions to Mars. The rover’s sophisticated landing-navigation system was the first of its kind, and future Mars astronauts may rely on similar technology. Perseverance also carries a device that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, it’s a prototype meant to test the technology on the red planet.
Oxygen is scarce in Mars’s atmosphere, and it’s unlikely that astronauts could bring enough of it to Mars to breathe there, let alone to fuel spaceships for the long journey home. So MOXIE aims to produce the crucial gas out of thin air.
The device electrochemically splits the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, and combines the oxygen molecules into O2. It analyzes the product’s purity, aiming for about 99.6% O2. Then it releases both the breathable oxygen and the carbon monoxide back into Mars’ atmosphere. Future scaled-up devices would store the oxygen in tanks for astronauts and rockets to use.
Finally, Perseverance carries a small weather station to monitor dust, radiation, and weather changes on the planet – all things that future astronauts would need to keep an eye on.