UAF research professor on team for European Space Agency’s mission to Venus

Solar system
Solar system(buradaki | WAFB)
Published: Jul. 2, 2022 at 9:10 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Robert Herrick, a research professor who specializes in planetary resurfacing histories at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, will be part of not one, but two, missions to Venus with the goal of unraveling the planet’s geologic history.

One mission will be run solely by NASA and the other by the European Space Agency, which NASA is contributing to. Part of this mission is comparing the mountains on Earth to those on Venus. The NASA mission will run first in 2027 and the European mission, launching in 2031, will be designed to take advantage of the NASA discoveries. This dual involvement, however, doesn’t come without its challenges.

“There’s now some effort where we’re going to try and coordinate to make sure that the two missions aren’t duplicating each other and are actually designed to complement each other,” Herrick said.

According to Herrick, they want to gain an understanding of current volcanic and tectonic activity on Venus and its interaction with the atmosphere. They’ve found mountain ranges on Venus that are similar to ours on Earth. Because of that, they think plate tectonics used to exist, but that stopped at some point.

“In the grand scheme of things Venus and Earth are almost indistinguishable. They are almost identical in size and very similar in terms of distance from the sun, yet Venus is completely inhospitable to life currently, so trying to understand why that is,” said Herrick.

On Earth, part of plate tectonics involves shoving water into the Earth at “subduction zones.” This “water shoving” allows the earth to make rocks rich in the compound silica which is usually in the form of quartz. If the upcoming missions find large areas with silica-rich rocks or other indicators of past plate tectonics, this could mean Venus’s water was stable at the surface and the planet could have been habitable in the past.

“So understanding how Venus and Earth diverged and became so different tells us a lot about what we should be thinking about the planets that we’re discovering around other stars,” Herrick said.

Herrick will be joined by another geophysical researcher who specializes in volcanism and mass transport processes. This makes the UAF geophysical institute the only organization with two scientists on the 14-member team.

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