With a surface hot enough to melt lead, crushing atmospheric pressure and clouds of sulfuric acid, Venus might not seem like the most attractive place for human exploration. Despite this, a group of experts advocates that this planet should be the first target for a crewed mission, reports The Guardian.
However, such a study has drawbacks: due to the conditions of Venus, astronauts will simply have to look at it from a spacecraft at a safe distance during a flyby of the planet. At the same time, Venus is much closer: this allows for a return mission in a year. For comparison, such a trip to Mars would take about three years.
According to a report at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) last week, a flyby of Venus would be scientifically valuable and could provide important experience of a long-duration mission in deep space as a prerequisite for a visit Mars.
“Venus has a bad reputation because it has such a complex surface environment,” said Dr. Noam Isenberg of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and one of the proponents of the Venus flyby. “NASA’s current paradigm is to fly from the Moon to Mars. We are trying to present Venus as an additional target along the way,” he said.
Isenberg says there are practical arguments for including a Venus flyby in the manned Mars landing that NASA hopes to accomplish by the late 2030s. And even though the planet is in the “wrong” direction, performing a loop around Venus, known as a gravitational maneuver, could reduce the travel time and fuel needed to reach Mars. This would make a manned flight to Venus a natural stepping stone towards NASA’s ultimate goal.
“You would learn about how people work in deep space without resorting to a full-fledged mission to Mars,” Isenberg said. “And it’s not just going off the beaten track – it’s going to have some stamp as you’re visiting another planet for the first time.”
Isenberg said the Venus flyby is “not popular yet” in the wider space community, although there are supporters at NASA, including its chief economist Alexander McDonald, who chaired the IAC session. They recently co-authored a paper called “Goddess Encounter” that makes the case for a hypothetical mission, suggesting that astronauts could deploy remotely piloted rovers, drones and balloons to observe Venus’ volcanoes and look for signs of past water or ancient life.
However, not everyone is convinced by this concept. “It’s really not a very good place to walk. It’s a hellish environment, and the thermal challenges for a manned mission will be quite significant,” said Professor Andrew Coates, a space scientist at the University of California’s Mullard Space Research Laboratory.
He added that Venus is rightfully at the center of scientific research, but that “a human flyby isn’t really going to do much.”