Why study Venus?
“There are two reasons,” says Darby Dyar, professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College. “One is to study the greenhouse effect and how water has been lost, which is linked to climate change. “
The other, she explains, “concerns one of the most important questions humans ask themselves: are we alone? There are Venus and Earth-like stars all over the universe. Venus is our best proof (of a possible life elsewhere).
Dyar, Kennedy-Schelkunoff professor of astronomy and holder of a chair of astronomy at Mount Holyoke, fulfills a long-held dream as part of a mission to explore why Venus has become hell, even though it has many many characteristics similar to those of Earth.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced Venus missions as part of its discovery program. They are designed to study a planet that may have been the solar system’s first habitable world, with large bodies of water and a climate resembling modern Earth.
Dyar is the Deputy Principal Investigator for VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy). She will study why Venus and Earth evolved from similar characteristics but developed so differently.
It’s a dream come true for Dyar, who will be dividing his time between Mount Holyoke and the NASA effort for the next several years.
“Working for something your whole life and then making it happen is hard to believe,” she says.
Dyar’s influence is felt on the South Hadley University Campus, but also beyond. She has written more than 260 articles in scientific journals, sits on three of NASA’s eight Virtual Solar System Exploration Institutes, and has received several awards in the fields of science, geology and astronomy.
Nasa, who announced his plans for the exploration of Venus on June 2, hopes to send a shoebox-sized landing vehicle to the planet by around 2028. It will take about a year for the vehicle to reach Venus.
Budgetary constraints, rather than scientific limitations, make an earlier landing unlikely.
The surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead, which excludes roving vehicles. The smaller landing vehicle is expected to survive for 60 days.
In the public consciousness, interest in Venus invariably takes a back seat to Mars. The “red planet” has provided a constant source of fascination, film production, and conjecture that one day humans might visit or even inhabit it.
This will not happen with Venus, where the temperature is 460 degrees centigrade (872 Fahrenheit). NASA has not had a mission to the planet for over 30 years. But Venus is actually closer to Earth than Mars, and surprising parallels can be drawn between the stories of the two planets.
“A solar system begins with a disk of dust that merges into a planet. The planet is getting hotter. Venus warmed before Earth, ”explains Dyar.
A widely held belief within the scientific community is that liquid water existed on Venus billions of years ago. And where there is liquid water, there can be life.
“This is the dominant theory. In a decade we will know for sure, ”says Dyar, who is among the believers.
Dyar’s interest in planetary science dates back 40 years to her days as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“One morning I walked into the office to find some crying graduate students in the hallways. NASA had just canceled a flagship mission to Venus, ”she recalls. “The Reagan administration decided it was too expensive.”
Thus, Dyar changed his focus on the moon and then on Mars. She has never lost interest in Venus, which she calls “the mysterious twin of the Earth”. Decades later, German scientist Joern Helbert asked Dyar to collaborate on the study of Venusian surface temperature, and the professor’s passion for Venus returned to the fore. So much so that she shares that she cried for joy when she learned that the project would happen.
“Over the past decade, I’ve worked with scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California to develop four Venus mission concepts,” Dyar explains. “The Principal Investigator, Suzanne Smrekar, is an extraordinary scientist. It has been an honor to work with her and others to develop this mission.
Each ambitious NASA mission has a different impact on American society. For some, this raises the question of whether the spectacular expense of space exploration is a worthwhile investment.
For Dyar, there is no doubt, and not just because of the insatiable human appetite for knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. She sees practical reasons that apply to 21st century Earth and her own confrontation with greenhouse gases, climate change and a path once followed by her misunderstood neighbor.
There is even a controversial scientific theory that life forms can exist on Venus today – not in human forms or as aliens from a sci-fi movie, but as microbes. If this is true, or even possible, speculation will grow that life in the universe cannot be limited to Earth alone.
The celestial movements of Venus have intrigued and fascinated astronomers and scientists for at least 3,000 years. From now on, Dyar will be part of a revival.
“I can’t wait to go,” she said. “We know exactly what we want to do and how we are going to do it. I can’t wait to take the next steps.