An image of the surface of Venus taken by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 mission.
For many years, the major focus for space exploration has been Mars and the Moon. Of course, the scientific community has been involved in missions elsewhere in the solar system, but the agendas for major space agencies have been dominated by the missions to the Moon and Mars. Now, there exists a possibility that another world could push its way into those agendas.
Venus is known as the hottest planet in the solar system, with surface temperatures as high as 470°C. In fact, Venus is even hotter than Mercury because Venus thick atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide, generating a runaway greenhouse effect. Venus is sometimes called the sister planet of the Earth, since it is very similar to the Earth in terms of size and mass. However, the problem is that the temperature and atmosphere of Venus makes it entirely different than the Earth.
Last week, a group of scientists announced the discovery of phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus. The paper, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, is based on the observations of the Venusian atmosphere detecting phosphine, a gas on Earth only known to be produced by biological processes.
Phosphine was initially identified in Venus’s atmosphere in 2017, based on the observations collected from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. With this initial input, a more focused search was conducted with more precise observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array facility in Chile. These observations in 2019 supported the initial findings, so now, after a detailed analysis, scientists announced the possibility of life in the atmosphere of Venus.
The amount of phosphine found is a trace amount: about 20 parts per billion in the Venus atmosphere. Theoretically, Venus should be hostile to phosphine, since there is enough oxygen available on its surface and surrounding atmosphere that would quickly react with and destroy phosphine. But, the trace amount of phosphine was found in high clouds over the Venus, where the temperature is expected to be around 30°C. Phosphine is known to occur as a result of a biological process and not through any naturally occurring chemical processes at the quantities detected.
Throughout the Space Age there has been a wide range of missions sent to fly by, orbit, and land on Venus. Many missions flown during the early years of spaceflight failed. In 1967, the Soviets had success with Venera 4, which carried out the chemical analysis of the Venusian atmosphere. In 1970, the first soft landing on a planet beyond Earth happened when Venera 7 touched down on Venus, although this mission had a very limited success.
The US space agency NASA flew several successful important missions which have added to our knowledge about the Venus. ESA and Japan’s JAXA have also led a few missions. However, majority of missions have been undertaken by the Soviets. Interestingly, after the end of the Cold War, Russia stopped flying missions to Venus. For next decade or so, any future missions would be by NASA, ESA, or the Indian space agency ISRO. The Russian agency Roscosmos has proposed launching an orbiter/lander mission, Venera-D, between 2026 and 2031. There were initial indications that Russia would like to involve other space agencies also in this project.
Interestingly, less than a day after the announcement about the possibility of life on Venus was announced, Russia declared its intentions to independently explore Venus. Moreover, Dmitry Rogozin, the president of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, has said to the effect that Russia believes that Venus is a “Russian planet.” He has also argued that the United States once called Venus a Soviet planet.
Politics has always been part and parcel of the attempts made by the humans to explore outer space. Political scientists have identified “astropolitics” as a subset of geopolitics. There were shades of technological one-upmanship when the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched by the Soviets. The race to the Moon that followed was also part of this technology superiority game. Today, Russia has named its COVID-19 vaccine “Sputnik-V.” The subtle messaging is obvious: “We were the first to launch a satellite and now we are the first to find a vaccine to a devastating pandemic.” The underlying message is that, be it in rocket science or biotechnology, Russia wants to be seen as a technology leader.
It is important to view Dmitry Rogozin’s statement that Russia believes that Venus is a “Russian planet” against this backdrop. Today, space activities span five dimensions: science, technology, industry, warfare, and geopolitics. Nations have also started identifying space exploration as an important component in diplomacy. One of the most relevant treaty mechanisms addressing various issues related to space is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). Since the late 1950s, there have been various attempts to formalize mechanisms to address various challenges of space. For decades, there have been various debates on possible introduction of codes of conducts, treaty mechanisms, international corporations, and laws in space. But state-centric interests are not allowing a major global push towards evolving a globally acceptable space security mechanism.
The concept of extraterrestrial real estate is not new. There have been some references to this idea as far back as the 19th century. After the success of Apollo missions, there was some aggressive selling of the idea. Some believed that, since now humans can reach the Moon, it was possible to own land there. A few people took advantage of this situation and opened schemes for the purchase of plots of land on the Moon or other celestial bodies, and some of them have claimed to make good money doing so.
The OST forbids nations from claiming celestial bodies. Like any other legal system, there have been efforts to find loopholes with this treaty mechanism too. The interpretation of any treaty mechanism is based on which side of the fence a state or an agency or an individual is.
There is a concept called Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) introduced during the 1960s. This is an ethical concept and a general concept of international law. However, CHM does not have global acceptance. There is need to put CHM in the context of the solar system and interstellar space. It is important to argue that planets and other celestial bodies should belong to all humanity and an individual state or private agency should not own the resources over them.
Unfortunately, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 in the United States allows companies there to commercially engage in the exploration and exploitation of space resources by undertaking mining over the bodies in space, including asteroids. Such mechanisms are arguably against the spirit of both the OST and the 1979 Moon Agreement.
The recent discovery indicating the possibility of life in the atmosphere of Venus is very exciting news for the scientific community. One can expect that now more research regarding Venus and its atmosphere will be funded, including missions by NASA and other space agencies.
Russia’s move about declaring “ownership” of Venus is bit surprising. The last mission to Venus by the Russians (Soviets) was launched in 1984! It appears that since the Venus came in news (all of a sudden), Russia grabbed the first opportunity to convey to the rest of the world that this planet belongs to them. They have smartly used their past record to substantiate their claim. Now the question is, what is the motive behind this Russian assertion? Is this the only way for expressing their love for Venus? Probably not. Worlds like Venus were once considered too difficult and expensive to explore, but the situation is changing, particularly with private players like Rocket Lab, which has proposed its own Venus mission, entering the field. There is an urgent need to start debating the need for rule-based mechanisms to address various challenges emerging from such exploration amid concerns of appropriation.