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UAF professor to work on mission to Venus

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 4:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A University of Alaska Fairbanks professor is joining a team of scientists working on the next mission to Venus.

At least $500 million is speeding toward Earth’s sister planet, as it is sometimes called.

NASA approved a new unmanned mission to study Venus as part of its Discovery program, and UAF professor Robert Herrick will be a co-investigator on the science team of a mission called Venus Emissivity, Radio Science InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS), according to a press release from the UAF Geophysical Institute.

Herrick said scientists aren’t far from a new discovery about Venus’ version of plate tectonics, which on Earth is the pieces of crust moving next to each other.

“We don’t have plate tectonics (there) like on Earth,” he said. “And so what Venus exactly has instead, we’re right on the cusp of figuring out.”

There’s a few theories about how Venus’s version of plate tectonics works. Herrick hopes this mission will give a more solid answer about that and Venus’ history.

“There’s some people that think that Venus may have been (in)habitable for sort of the first two thirds of solar system history,” Herrick said. “So there’s even the possibility that Venus was inhabitable before the Earth was.”

Herrick said this makes studying how Venus went from inhabitable to uninhabitable a part of a bigger story of figuring out a planet’s ability to house life.

VERITAS won’t be Herrick’s first time working this closely with the planet.

“I guess the thing you live for, if you’re in a planetary scientist, is to be involved with an active mission,” he said.

He worked on the Magellan Mission in the 1980s as a student, the last time NASA went to Venus.

“Venus and Earth are almost identical in terms of their kind of gross properties,” Herrick said. “And yet, Venus is completely uninhabitable. And Earth is the cradle of life.”

Right now, Herrick said VERITAS is slated to launch at the end of this decade.

NASA also approved another mission called DAVINCI+. It will likely be a few years behind VERITAS, Herrick said.

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