Parachuting rocket telescope studies Venus’ atmosphere

Venus is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and there's still much to be learned about this planet named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. For example, did the planet ever have water? Scientists at NASA think so, and have sent a rocket, VeSpR, with an onboard telescope into space to study the planet’s atmosphere and learn if water ever existed on its surface.

What we currently know about Venus and its potential for water comes from data gathered back in 1978. Then, scientists believed that Venus might have once held enough water to cover the entirety of the planet. However, we need updated information about the levels of hydrogen and deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in the planet’s atmosphere to confirm or disprove that. Deuterium is a heavier hydrogen isotope and might have stayed in Venus’ atmosphere even after the sun’s UV rays broke apart regular hydrogen atoms, releasing them into space. By comparing how much hydrogen and deuterium is present, scientists can create theories on how much water might have once existed on the planet and what happened to it.

VeSpr launched earlier this week, and traveled to about 65 miles above the Earth’s surface. From there, it measured the UV light in Venus’ atmosphere for eight minutes, and then parachuted safely back to Earth, where it was picked up. Scientists will study its data, along with information collected about Venus by the Hubble telescope, and then VeSpR can be launched again.

Why this obsession with water? Not only was it a big deal when the Curiosity rover discovered water on Mars, but we’re also wanting to launch probes to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, looking for the same thing. As water is the thing that (as far as we know) allows life to exist in our Universe, the presence of it anywhere in the cosmos is a good indicator that life may have existed outside of Earth. And that might be the most exciting news ever: that knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe.


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