5 mins read 06 Jul 2021

USQ Professor at the heart of NASA’s missions to Venus

NASA’s billion-dollar Venus missions DAVINCI+ and VERITAS planned to launch in 2028 - 2030, has University of Southern Queensland Professor Stephen Kane playing a key role to solve the mysteries of the inferno that is Venus.  

An image of Venus made using data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Earth’s planetary twin, Venus, is the focus of NASA’s billion-dollar DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions with Australian Professor Stephen Kane playing a key role in devising both plans. University of Southern Queensland Adjunct, Professor Kane is currently based at the University of California (Riverside).

As part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions are set to launch within a 2028 - 2030 timeframe and aim to explore how Venus became an inferno-like world when it is otherwise so similar to Earth. Venus may well have been the first habitable world in the Solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate. 

DAVINCI+ will explore Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, while VERITAS will map the planet’s surface to investigate its geologic history and why it developed so differently from its twin planet Earth. 

Professor Kane said the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions may hold the key to Earth’s future. 

“Something clearly went very wrong for Venus - did it lose plate tectonics or its own system to recycle carbon? And could this happen to our blue planet?”

“Despite its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide, clouds of sulphuric acid, average temperature of 471°C, and crushing pressure, Venus and Earth have a lot in common,” Professor Kane said. 

“Unlike Earth, which recycles and stores carbon from its atmosphere, Venus now has a runaway greenhouse effect that traps in heat and scorches the planet beneath,” he said. 

"Venus and Earth formed from the same kind of material and are similar in size, density, and gravity. There's also evidence that Venus had surface water oceans as recently as about a billion years ago.” Professor Kane said. 

“That may sound like a long time, but the solar system is more than four billion years old – plenty of time for potential life.

“We can't help but ask what happened – what was the point of divergence between these two twins that caused them to take completely different pathways in their life?”

The DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions

Professor Stephen Kane, originally from Tamworth, University of Southern Queensland Adjunct Professor Stephen Kane, is currently based at the University of California (Riverside). Credit: Stan Li, UC Riverside

Professor Kane is on the science team for the DAVINCI+ mission - Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging.  The mission will measure the composition of the acid-filled atmosphere of Venus to understand how it formed and evolved and whether the planet ever had an ocean.  

The mission will make use of a ‘descent sphere’ which will take precise measurements of noble gases and other elements in the planet’s thick atmosphere. With this data, scientists may understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared to Earth’s. 

Professor Kane also collaborated with the science team behind VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, In SAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission will map the planet’s surface to determine the planet’s geological history and understand why it developed so differently compared to its twin, Earth. 

From its orbit, VERITAS will chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create 3D reconstruction so topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active. 

Recently, scientists detected a gas in the clouds above Venus called Phosphine (PH3), typically produced by microbes here on Earth. Professor Kane theorised that it is possible that the gas represents “the last surviving species on a planet that went through a dramatic change in its environment.” However, he notes that is an improbable, though not impossible, scenario. 

Professor Kane says it is important to understand what happened to Venus, a planet that was once likely to have been habitable but now has surface temperatures of up to 426 degrees Celsius. 

“I focus on the differences between Venus and Earth, and what went wrong for Venus, so we can gain insight into how the Earth is habitable, and what we can do to shepherd this planet as best we can,” Professor Kane said.

About Professor Stephen Kane

Professor Kane is part of the University of Southern Queensland Centre for Astrophysics, working closing with Toowoomba-based researchers to support NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Originally from Toowoomba, Professor Kane studied Physics & Astronomy at Macquarie University, Sydney, graduating with 1st Class Honours before accepting a scholarship from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, USA. He returned to Australia to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Tasmania before returning to USA. 

He is currently a Professor of Planetary Astrophysics in the Departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside.