Launching billionaires into space is an exercise in astronomical egomania

The billionaire space race, which received an inordinate amount of media attention over the last few years, has increased public awareness of space exploration. Each billionaire – Musk, Bezos, Branson and so on – promises to outdo the exploits of their rivals. However, such missions are outsized vanity projects.

These projects will satisfy the overinflated egos of the rocket oligarchs. However, such cosmic parasitism will do nothing to advance our understanding of space, cosmology or fulfil the objectives of planetary missions.

There are more important scientific objectives, elaborated by astronomers and cosmologists, which if fulfilled will deepen our knowledge and understanding of the cosmos.

Venus is sometimes called the Earth’s sister planet – it is of similar size to Earth, occupies an adjacent orbital lane to us, and its atmosphere contains greenhouses gases like ours. In fact, the discovery of the phases of Venus – the stages of reflective lighting on the planet’s surface, just like the Moon – was crucial for Galileo. He contradicted the then predominant Ptolemaic view of an Earth-centred universe. Venusian phases proved that Venus revolves around the sun.

The atmosphere of Venus, and the planet’s surface, is another story. A nightmarish hellscape, Venus is a place which demonstrates the consequences of the runaway greenhouse effect. Surface temperatures reach 400 degrees Celsius, and there are heavy clouds of sulfuric acid circulating in the atmosphere. The surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead.

In 2021, NASA scientists listed Venus as the next priority target for a new space mission. The intention was to explore the Venusian atmosphere, geology, chemical makeup and any possibility of finding traces of life, however remote. Astronomers, all the while the billionaire egotistical space race was developing, worked out the scientific objectives of VERITAS, a proposed mission to Venus.

In fact, in June 2021, the NASA administrator announced two missions to Venus. One is the above mentioned VERITAS, and the other is DAVINCI+. The names are acronyms derived from the objectives and instrumentation involved in each mission.

Earlier this year, scientists closely examined the images of the Venusian surface taken by Magellan – the last detailed mission to Venus undertaken 30 years ago. The images uploaded by that effort, upon examination, revealed that Venus has active volcanoes. There are only two other solar objects that have active volcanoes – Earth, and Io, a moon of Jupiter. Not much is understood about Venusian geology – other than that it is very different to the continental plate tectonics of Earth.

Things were looking exciting for Venusian space exploration. However, early in March this year, some dismaying news; the budget for the proposed VERITAS mission has been drastically reduced. The initial budget request for the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, was $US124 ($172) million. This was cut by NASA to $US1.5 ($2) million for 2024.

The VERITAS mission has several objectives, the main one being to map the rock composition of Venus, boosting our knowledge of the geological activity of the planet. This objective is even more relevant in light of the recent discovery of active volcanism on Venus. The viability of the VERITAS mission is now in doubt. Astronomers are left feeling confused by the budget cuts, and are organising to uphold the feasibility of the Venus planetary mission.

Planetary missions, such as the proposed Venusian projects, inspire thousands of young people to take up astronomy and cosmology, and increase awareness of the importance of those subjects – not to mention increased participation in amateur stargazing clubs. In 2015, the New Horizons mission returned masses of data from the planet of Pluto. Never before had any spacecraft flown so close to that planet. Yes, I realise that Pluto is now officially classified as a dwarf planet, or trans Neptunian object – but that is another story.

Pluto, about which little was known, turned out to have a geologically active surface. There are a number of mountain ranges on Pluto, and the ‘heart’ of the planet is Sputnik Planitia, a large ice-covered basin with intricate features. The New Horizons mission was a historic achievement, and opened up new possibilities of space exploration.

It would be an appalling outcome for the planetary science community, and for humanity in general, if such projects are delayed or cancelled outright. Yet the billionaires continue their egotistical ambitions to travel to outer space. Spectacular and cynical outer space stunts by ultrawealthy billionaires may make good television, but do nothing to deepen our understanding of the universe.

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