Interlude: Venus Favours the Bold? Russia and the Second Planet

Venus dayside synthesized false color image by UVI (2018 Mar 18) No.1 [Photo: (C) Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)]

by Marc Lanteigne

For years, the planet Venus [video] was considered the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of the Earth’s global warming, given that the world’s cloud-shrouded atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, with surface temperatures reaching over 460ºC, (a record for any planet in the Solar System, including Mercury). Adding to the hostile conditions are atmospheric pressures ninety times that of Earth, winds that can reach 360 kilometres per hour, intense volcanic activity, and clouds (and rain) made of sulphuric acid. These conditions have been blamed on a ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ caused by ancient oceans evaporating due to extended periods of sunlight, and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere, which eventually heated the planet in extremis.

As Stephen Hawking warned in 2017, climate change trends on Earth could result in our world becoming much more Venus-like in the future. Climate change continues to affect our planet this year, despite the slowdown of economic activities caused by the pandemic, and the results can also continue to be seen in the Polar Regions. Updated research published this month provided further evidence of a ‘new Arctic’ emerging, marked by warmer air, melting ice and more frequent precipitation in the form of rain as opposed to snow.

Venus has often been referred to as ‘Earth’s twin’, given the similar size, and overall composition, (both are ‘terrestrial planets’, meaning a telluric / rocky planet), of the two worlds. Yet the radical differences in other aspects including atmospheres, (Venus has no magnetic field and spins clockwise, or ‘retrograde’), include the fact that Venus is lifeless.

Or rather, potentially lifeless. A paper published earlier this month in the journal Nature Astronomy by Prof Jane Greaves (Cardiff University) et al. detailed evidence, via chemical traces during long-range observation, of a gas which has most commonly been linked with life processes on Earth in Venus’ cooler upper atmosphere . (An additional paper looking at this phenomenon, prepared for the journal Astrobiology, can be read here [pdf]). The apparent detection of phosphine (PH3) detailed in these studies may be caused by a previously unknown natural chemical reaction, or could also be a sign of life in the clouds of Venus. Phosphine is a colourless gas but is flammable, corrosive and toxic, and is found in many places on earth, being associated with various life processes.  

Venus had been almost entirely ignored by scientists seeking life in other parts of the Solar System, as its temperatures and overall conditions made it a dubious candidate at best. Some papers in the last century had indeed posited the possibility of life forms in the Venusian higher atmospheric levels, including a watershed 1967 study published in the journal Nature by Harold Morowitz and Carl Sagan, (Mr Sagan, during his doctoral research in 1960, had also hypothesised that Venus had been subjected to an extensive greenhouse effect long ago).

However, far more attention has been focused in another direction, namely towards Mars and the outer planets, (and their moons), in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Mars had long been seen as an optimal location for potential life, or possibly fossils, to exist. The planet has been the focus of numerous exploration operations, including most recently the American Perseverance rover mission, China’s Tianwen-1 (天问一号) probe [in Chinese] and the Hope (الأمل‎ Al-Amal) mission led by the United Arab Emirates, all of which were launched in the middle of this year. More recently, two satellites of Saturn, namely Enceladus and Titan, as well as Jupiter’s moon Europa, had also been placed high on the roster of life-bearing worlds. With the discovery this month, however, Venus may just have been catapulted to the front of the line.

It is at this point where Russia entered, (or rather re-entered, as will be explained), the picture, and there are notable links to this involvement and Russian Arctic policies in recent years. Since the tentative phosphine discovery was announced, calls have been made for new missions to the planet. At present, only a single satellite, Akatsuki (あかつき Dawn), operating since 2015 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is taking readings over Venus. NASA is also considering four new potential probe missions at present, including two to the second planet from the sun. One option, DAVINCI+, would entail a survey of the Venusian atmosphere.

Moscow is now also coming forward to express its interests in missions to Venus, including an announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos (Роскосмос) of a national effort to encourage independent exploration of the planet. This would be in addition to the Venera-D (Венера-Д) Venus project, which Russia proposed in partnership with the United States, but which may or may not be affected by the difficult diplomatic relations between the two powers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin shake hands following a television interview, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)]

However, in announcing renewed Russian participation in Venus exploration, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, seemingly took matters a step further by noting [in Russian] that Venus was a ‘Russian planet’. Also last week, a statement [in Russian] from Roscosmos weighed in on the matter by stating that during the cold war, even American commentaries referred to Venus as ‘the Soviet Planet’ (советской планетой) in recognition of the wide lead which the USSR had in regards to exploring that world.

Whether these remarks were actually meant as an intention to eventually stake a claim, or were simply reflecting the long history of Russian, and before that Soviet, missions to the planet, was unclear, but they received much international attention last week. The Soviet Union was the first country to successfully land probes on Venus, via its Venera (Венера) missions between 1967-84. Venera-7 (1970) was the first victorious attempt to place a lander on Venus, and the Venera-13 (1981) mission transmitted the first colour images of the planet’s surface. The first US mission to the planet took place in 1978 with the arrival of the Pioneer orbiter.

For all the current controversy, an actual attempt to claim the planet for the Russian Federation would face the international prohibition of such actions as detailed by the Outer Space Treaty, which came into effect in 1967. Article II of that document [pdf] specifies that ‘Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ Russia / USSR, as well as the United States and China, are amongst the 110 current signatories to the Treaty.

Mr Rogozin, who has been the Director-General of Roscosmos since 2018, has had a previous history of being somewhat of an iconoclast when it came to certain international laws and norms, including those covering the Arctic. In April 2015, he courted controversy, as well as criticism from the Norwegian government, when he appeared in Svalbard despite being subject to a travel ban in Norway and the European Union, in the wake of the Russian-backed invasion of Crimea during the previous year. At that time, Mr Rogozin was Deputy Prime Minister (Defence / Space) under President Vladimir Putin.

Artist’s concept of lightning on Venus, 2007 [Image by J. Whatmore via the European Space Agency / ESA]

The Russian government reacted negatively to Norwegian criticism of the visit, (which included pictures [paywall] on Twitter), by arguing that the sanctions did not apply to Svalbard, which is Norwegian territory but governed under the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty. The visit was seen as one of a long series of challenges which Moscow has issued regarding Norwegian oversight of Svalbard, as well as part of expanding Russian interests in developing a stronger and more visible Arctic presence, which included a controversial flag-planting under the ice of the North Pole in 2007.

Such an event is unlikely to be repeated on Venus, as the flag would melt, (unless it, like the North Pole flag, was also made of titanium, which has a melting point of 1668ºC or so), but the events of the past week do demonstrate links between that planet and the Arctic, politically as well as environmentally.