For decades, the exploration of our solar system left one of our neighbouring planets, Venus, largely unexplored. Now, things are about to change.
In the latest announcement from NASA's solar system exploration program, two missions have been given the go-ahead – and they're both bound for Venus. The two ambitious missions will launch between 2028 and 2030.
This marks a considerable change in direction for NASA's planetary science division, which hasn't sent a mission to the planet since 1990. It's exciting news for space scientists like me.
Venus is a hostile world. Its atmosphere contains sulphuric acid and the surface temperatures is hot enough to melt lead. But it has not always been this way. It is thought Venus started out very similar to the Earth. So what happened?
While on Earth, carbon is mainly trapped in rocks, on Venus it has escaped into the atmosphere – making it roughly 96 percent carbon dioxide. This has led to a runaway greenhouse effect, pushing surface temperatures up to 750 kelvin (470 degrees Celsius or 90 degrees Fahrenheit).
The planet's history makes it an excellent place to study the greenhouse effect and to learn how to manage it on Earth. We can use models which plot the atmospheric extremes of Venus, and compare the results to what we see back home.
But, the extreme surface conditions are one of the reasons planetary exploration missions have avoided Venus. The high temperature means a very high pressure of 90 bars (equivalent to roughly one kilometre underwater) which is enough to instantly crush most planetary landers. It might not come as a surprise, then, that missions to Venus haven't always gone to plan.
Most of the exploration done so far was carried out by the then Soviet Union between the 1960s and the 1980s. There are some notable exceptions, such as NASA's Pioneer Venus mission in 1972 and the European Space Agency's Venus Express mission in 2006.
The first landing happened in 1970, when the Soviet Union's Venera 7 crashed due to the parachute melting. But it managed to transmit 20 minutes of data back to Earth. The first surface images were taken by Venera 9, followed by Veneras 10, 13 and 14.