A CubeSat Mission To Venus Might Finally Unlock The Mystery Of Its Atmosphere

The cloud of Venus as seen by the European Probe Venus Express in 2006. ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA

We might be close to finding out exactly what’s going on in the complex atmosphere of Venus. NASA has just approved funding to develop a concept mission to Venus using a small CubeSat. The tiny probe will focus on studying the planet using ultraviolet (UV) light.

To the human eye, Venus appears covered in featureless clouds. But thanks to missions like the Pioneer probe, we know that when we look at the planet in UV, the story is very different. Dark and light features move around in its upper atmosphere, indicating there’s something there that is absorbing half of the solar energy the planet receives, we just don’t know what it is.

“Since the maximum absorption of solar energy by Venus occurs in the ultraviolet, determining the nature, concentration, and distribution of the unknown absorber is fundamental,” Principal Investigator Valeria Cottini said in a statement. “This is a highly-focused mission — perfect for a CubeSat application.”

The mission is called CUVE, CubeSat UV Experiment. It will have an ultraviolet-sensitive spectrometer, which would be able to tell what kind of molecules and elements are flying around in Venus' clouds.

This is a fairly standard instrument but the team is also thinking of including more daring tech. Since the crucial feature of CubeSat is being small and light, every instrument needs to be similarly light. So the craft might include an optical telescope with a mirror made of resin and carbon nanotubes.

This type of mirror, developed by Peter Chen, is the first ever made with this technique. It is not only light, it also doesn’t require polishing or time-consuming shaping processes. The carbon nanotubes are embedded in the hot resin, which is then heated in the preferred shape. It is then covered in reflective materials.

The team is also exploring more technologies as well as having a second payload. One of the selling points of a CubeSat mission is the possibilities to send two (or more) missions for a similar cost of a much bigger one.

Venus is a hellish world with lead-melting temperatures, crushing atmosphere, and acid clouds. This complex world has been very difficult to study and the existence of the more human-friendly Mars has led to a waning public interest in Earth's so-called twin. But Venus might tell us a lot about planetary formation and it deserves to be studied in detail.


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