NASA has recently selected a Wesleyan proposal for a project that would investigate the geology of Venus. Associate Professor Martha Gilmore and Assistant Professor Phillip Resor are leading a team of researchers working to map and model the folds and faults of Venus. NASA’s interest stems from a possible mission to Venus in the future.
“There’s a lot of interest in exploring Venus and what the mission should be like, where we should go, what we should do,” Gilmore said. “Understanding how Venus works will tell you something about how Earth works.”
Additionally, Venus has long fascinated scientists for its uncommon geologic structure.
“The striking thing about Venus was that there are very few craters on the surface,” Resor explained.
The NASA program Planetary Geology and Geophysics (PGG) advertised for grant proposals last year. Gilmore originally applied with her proposal to map Venus in 2007, but when NASA responded with a request that the project include models, Gilmore and Resor teamed up and re-submitted their improved proposal the following year—this time, NASA approved it.
The $212,000 three-year grant will cover personnel, publication, and travel costs. Wesleyan is paying for the various technologies necessary for the research. Gilmore and Resor are also collaborating with two scientists outside of the University: Becky Ghent from the University of Toronto and Dave Senske of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of the California Institute of Technology.
According to Gilmore, the craters on Venus’ surface can be used to determine the age of the planet; this is due to fault movement near the surface caused by volcanic activity. The team will work to measure the thickness of the lithosphere, the outermost layer of the planet. Measuring the thickness of these outer folds will allow Gilmore and Resor to determine the temperature of the planet and, ultimately, how the current surface of Venus may have formed. Resor said this project is the first to map Venus at such a detailed level.
“We want to understand the materials and the rocks that are there before [the future mission],” she said.
Gilmore, the project’s principal investigator, plans to map Venus’ surface by focusing specifically on the Tellus Regio, a region at a high altitude. Resor, in turn, will use the resulting maps to study the folds and faults on the planet’s surface and to establish the thermal gradient.
“I hope to learn something fundamental about how Venus works,” Gilmore said. “What is most represented about the planet. That is what we are trying to do with Venus and I think our work will help with that.”
Using various pre-determined models, Resor plans to confirm the relationship between temperature and depth. The modeling begins this month and will continue for two out of the three years the project is slated to run.
“From the modeling side, we’re going to be more thorough,” Resor explained.
According to Gilmore, 350 billion years ago, Venus’ surface may have been an ocean. Because of the amount of sulfuric acid rain and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Venus is not conducive to life, though there have been papers claiming the existence of “cloud beings”.
“[Cloud beings are microbes] not like Orlando Calrissian in Star Wars,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore and Resor are studying regions that may once have been oceans—the only places where life on Venus would have been possible. According to Resor, however, with a lava-covered surface that is 465 degrees Celsius, they are unlikely to find any real evidence of life today.
“The surface of Venus is pretty nasty,” he said.