Life after Venus Express: Science goals for a European Venus radar orbiter

Colin F. Wilson, Richard Ghail

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ESA’s Venus Express mission has led to a renaissance of Venus science, following a dearth of Venus missions in the previous 15 years. Venus Express has made many discoveries in atmospheric science, for which its payload was optimised; however it has also provided tantalising hints about the geological activity of the planet. Mesospheric sulphur dioxide abundances vary by 1000% on decadal timescales, in a pattern which suggests episodic volcanic injections [Marcq et al. Nature Geosci 2013; Esposito, Science 1984]; anomalous emissivity near suggest volcanic hotspots implies geologically recent, as-yet-unweathered lava flows [Smrekar et al., Science 2010]; and recent results, if confirmed, show temporal evolution of thermal emission from some regions of the surface may be direct evidence of volcanic activity during the duration of the VEx mission [Shalygin et al., LPSC 2014]. While there are more results to be obtained yet from the Venus Express dataset, further investigation of these phenomena will require a new Venus mission. We therefore propose an orbiter mission focussed on characterising the geological activity of Venus. The key instrument would be a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Why a radar mission following NASA’s Magellan mission? Radar capabilities are vastly improved in the last 30 years and a modern radar would be capable of spatial resolution approaching two orders of magnitude better than that from Magellan; this enables a wide range of investigations, from detailed study of tectonic, volcanic and Aeolian features, to stratigraphy for better reconstruction of geological epochs. Interferometric SAR could also be used to study the centimetre-scale surface deformations due to current volcanic or tectonic activity. Constraints on interior structure can be obtained not only from improved gravity mapping (from spacecraft tracking) but also by studying the spin state of Venus from high-resolution radar measurements. The radar measurements will be complemented by a further suite of instruments which may include a dedicated surface emission mapper using near-infrared spectral windows; a spectrometer suite to map sulphur dioxide and other possibly volcanic gases; and possibly a subsurface sounding radar to reveal the structure of lava flows and other surface structures. This mission, following on from the 2007 EVE [Chassefière et al., Exp. Astron 2009] and 2010 Envision [Ghail et al., Exp. Astron 2012] proposals, is being developed for proposal to ESA as a “Medium-class” mission in late 2014.
Original languageEnglish
Journal40th COSPAR Scientific Assembly. Held 2-10 August 2014, in Moscow, Russia
Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2014

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