Revisiting Earth’s Twin

The Soviets sent several missions to Venus in the 1960s and today scientists are looking at this close neighbor once again – this time in the search for life with the discovery of a unique element in the planet’s atmosphere.

Venus was the object of early space exploration – Russian, not American. This is once again where the 1960s become relevant to today – not for the hippies, psychedelic music, Vietnam, or free love every one knows – but in much more constructive, literally out-of-this-world ways.

We now know that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 didn’t mean the Soviet Union had a huge lead in space, military hardware, or engineering. Eisenhower and the presidents that followed him knew this, but Kennedy used the public perception of Sputnik as a spur to propel the United States toward the great ambition of the Apollo program (“not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” said Kennedy) to land a man on the moon in 1969. And it’s remarkable that the United States is still the only one among the nations of the earth to do this – not once, but six times. After Apollo came Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and most recently to a search for life on Mars.

Except for three flybys of the Mariner probe and one by Magellan (1962, 1967, and 1972; 1994), Venus has been kind of an orphan for American space planners, an afterthought for NASA and the United States.

. . . until now.


Atacama Array, Chile

In June 2021, the American space agency announced new missions to Venus based on recent discoveries that changed perspectives about Earth’s nearest planet. The fall of last year brought evidence from astrophysicists in Hawaii and Chile of phosphine (PH3) in Venus’ atmosphere – a gas produced only in the presence of living organisms.

Life on Earth’s twin? This set off a flurry of questions.

  • Why, amidst the blanket of clouds of sulfuric acid, does a narrow band exist in Venus’ atmosphere where Earth-like conditions prevail?
  • Was Venus once different long ago from the terrible, volcanic, 900-degree dry place it is today?
  • If phosphine is usually an indicator of life, why does life-teaming Earth have this substance in lower concentrations than the 20 parts per billion found in the atmosphere of arid Venus?
  • Jupiter and Saturn have atmospheric phosphine but this apparently does not indicate life since they are hydrogen gas giants, but phosphine on a rocky planet like Venus is another matter.
  • Does the signature of phosphine life associated with Venus indicate a chemical, physical, or biological process we don’t understand?

With these questions, Venus is in vogue, and a kind of Venus craze has unfolded in the last year. NASA’s Discovery Program plans missions in 2028 and 2030; the European Space Agency likewise in 2032; India’s Space Research Organization’s Shukrayaan-1 Venus project launches 2024 or 2026, and the Russians are planning flyby and lander goals for 2029. Even private enterprises like California-based Rocket Lab founded specifically for life-hunting missions in the Solar System has its own Venus project set to go soon in 2023!  Who knows if Musk, Branson, or Bezos will jump in.

But where does the 1960s come in all this excitement? After all, this is a column that connects the era to our own day.

Well, it turns out that while we were going to the moon, Venus was the object of Soviet attention starting in 1961 in something called the Venera and Vega Programs that continued virtually uninterrupted until the Soviet Union began to fracture in 1984. Probe after probe they sent to gather information, and not just from a distance. Thirteen vehicles entered Venus’ atmosphere, and a stunning ten missions actually landed on the surface – surviving for only short periods from about 20 minutes to two hours. But still, accomplishments and a heroic beginning.

Accomplishments that led to several “firsts” in space exploration:

  • March 1, 1965, Venera 3: first man-made object to (crash) land on a planet’s surface
  • As the Gemini Program handed the baton to Apollo to go to the moon, the Soviet’s Venera 4 in 1967 put a man-made device into the atmosphere of another planet that returned data for the first time.
  • The Venusian atmospheric pressure crushed Veneras 5 & 6 on the way to the planet’s surface; a massively-overbuilt Venera 7 in 1970 made the first soft landing on another planet.
  • Five years later in 1975, Venera 9 returned images for the first time from another planet
  • Venera 12 in 1978 sent back the first sounds (thunder/lightning)
  • Mission 13 returned the first color images in 1982



These Soviet “firsts” remind me of the medical transplants that began in the early 1960s in our ”Surgery Chronology” ( At first, patients lived a short time post-op; then longer and longer as surgeons learned, procedures advanced, and anti-rejection drugs became available in the first years of the 1970s. Same with Venus landings, the moon, and space.

It remains to be seen how explorers of the Inner Solar System (where Venus is) will build upon the Soviet Venera initiatives of the 1960, 1970s, and 1980s. Technology has improved, certainly. For the United States which has ambitions for Mars, Venus is 16 million miles closer to Earth than the Red Planet. For all explorers, there are common questions about the conundrum of the biomolecule called phosphine. For all the explorers as well, Venus remains hostile for manned missions, the atmosphere poisonous and murky, and the general environment closer to the Sun and hotter than Mars will ever be.

Still, once again, we see the strivers and innovators of our 1960-75 era connecting with the strivers and innovators of today – undeterred by hardship or obstacles, but inspired and spurred on by them. In any era, it’s exciting to see.

In this case, we’re about to learn something from an adventure that the Soviets began sixty years ago or so. Just like in the tense standoff in the Himalayan steppes of our previous column, we’ll be watching this too.

Always great to have something to look forward to.  Makes life worth living.

Phosphine in the Toxic Venusian Atmosphere

Until next month,

June 7, 2021




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