The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a mission to Venus, with the intention of learning more about its history and whether it was ever habitable.
The EnVision orbiter is designed to help scientists gain a better understanding of the planet’s inner core and upper atmosphere, to determine how and why Venus and Earth evolved so differently.
“A new era awaits us in the exploration of our closest, but completely different, neighbor in the solar system,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science.
“Along with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program on this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.
” The team hopes to answer why Venus experienced such dramatic climate change, giving it a toxic atmosphere filled with thick sulfuric acid-rich clouds.
They also want to find out if the planet is still geologically active and if there could ever have been an ocean that could support life.
Costing around €610 million (£525 million), EnVision is equipped with a range of European-built instruments, including a siren to reveal underground layers, and spectrometers to study the atmosphere and surface.
British researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, University of Oxford and Imperial College London will be involved and will compare geological and atmospheric processes with those on Earth and other planets.
The spectrometers will track trace gases in the atmosphere and analyze the surface composition, looking for any changes that could be linked to signs of active volcanism.
A NASA-provided radar will image and map the surface, while a radio science experiment will examine the internal structure and gravitational field of the planet and examine the structure and composition of the atmosphere.
The instruments will work together to best characterize the interaction between the planet’s various boundaries – from the interior to the surface to the atmosphere – and provide a comprehensive global picture of the planet and its processes.
The ESA team will work with NASA’s upcoming DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions, announced earlier this month, to build a comprehensive understanding of the planet.
With the planet’s surface temperatures soaring above 471°C, coupled with an extremely acidic atmosphere, previous landers have only lasted about two hours, at the highest point they failed to function properly.
This has given scientists only limited glimpses beyond the planet’s atmosphere in the past. The next step for EnVision is to move into the detailed ‘Definition Phase’, which will finalize the design of the satellite and instruments.
After the design phase, a European industrial contractor will be selected to build and test EnVision before launching it on an Ariane 6 rocket.
The earliest possibility for EnVision’s launch is in 2031, with other possible options in 2032 and 2033. It will take about 15 months to reach the planet, with an additional 16 months to orbit through aerobraking.
British Science Secretary Amanda Solloway said: “I am proud that once again British scientists have been chosen to take a leading role in a mission that will increase humanity’s understanding of the universe.
“It’s fascinating to think how many similarities Venus shares with our Earth, and what its secrets can tell us about our climate and what makes our planet so special to support life.”