Friday, November 11, 2005

There is much more than volcanoes to learn about Venus

Little is known about Earth’s neighbor Venus because its surface is veiled by thick, swirling clouds.
But scientists expect an upcoming Venus mission to help unlock some of the second planet’s secrets.

The European Space Agency’s Venus Express, with 12 Americans on the mostly European team, is launching a spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today. The spacecraft is expected to arrive just outside Venus’s atmosphere in April 2006 for the 16-month mission.
Larry Esposito, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado and member of the Venus Express science team, anticipates a slew of new information about Venus’ atmosphere because the team is launching better technology than was used on two dozen previous missions.

Esposito said he is particularly interested in finding out whether Venus’ volcanoes are still active. In a recent press release, Esposito — who made the first observations of Venus with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 — said the Magellan mission, which mapped Venus in the 1990s, did not find evidence of volcanic activity.

“We may discover erupting volcanos and an understanding of the absorbing materials and clouds of Venus,” Esposito said.

The scientists will be looking for clues about the planet’s atmosphere.

“We’ll be observing (the atmosphere) and relate the information to the question of whether life ever arose on Venus,” Esposito said.

Esposito’s research will focus on the “ultraviolet absorbers” that block sunlight from reaching the surface of Venus.

Scientists have long been interested in the planet because of some of its similarities to Earth. Venus receives about the same amount of radiation from the sun as Earth does, and the two planets formed at about the same time and have similar size, mass and composition. However, Mars has received more attention in the media over the past decade.

“(Mars) is a place where life could have risen and might even exist now,” Esposito said. “Some of the current interest in Mars has caused neglect in Venus over the last decade.”

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