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Venus was once Earth’s identical twin – how did it turn into an inferno?

University of Southern Queensland Adjunct Professor Stephen Kane is helping solve the mysteries of our brightest star.

NASA has greenlit two new missions to help solve the mysteries of Venus, an inferno-like world that may once have been habitable (complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate).

One billion dollars has been set aside for VERITAS and DAVINCI+, launching in 2028 and 2030, and University of Southern Queensland Adjunct Professor Stephen Kane, based at the University of California (Riverside), helped devise both plans.

DAVINCI+ will explore Venus’s atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, while VERITAS will map the planet’s surface to investigate its geologic history and why it developed so differently than Earth.

“Despite its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide, clouds of sulphuric acid, average temperature of 471°C, and crushing pressure, Venus and Earth have a lot in common,” Professor Kane said. 

"Venus and Earth formed from the same kind of material and are similar in size, density, and gravity. There's also evidence that Venus had surface water oceans as recently as about a billion years ago.

“That may sound like a long time but the solar system is more than four billion years old – plenty of time for potential life.

“We can't help but ask what happened – what was the point of divergence between these two twins that caused them to take completely different pathways in their life?”

Professor Kane said the VERITAS and DAVINCI+ missions would answer some long pondered questions but may also hold the key to Earth’s future. 

“Unlike Earth, which recycles and stores carbon from its atmosphere, Venus now has a runaway greenhouse effect that traps in heat and scorches the planet beneath,” he said. 

“Something clearly went very wrong for Venus - did it lose plate tectonics or its own system to recycle carbon? And could this happen to our blue planet?”

Professor Kane will use chemistry and pressure data from the DAVINCI+ probe to build a model of Venus’s atmosphere, cross-referencing it against our own and hopefully unlocking the mystery behind the ‘lost habitable’ world.

He also collaborated with the science team behind VERITAS, an orbiter mission to accurately map the planet surface to create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus.

Professor Kane is part of the University of Southern Queensland Centre for Astrophysics, working closing with Toowoomba-based researchers to support NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. 

An image of Venus made using data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

usq professor doing a presentation
University of Southern Queensland Adjunct Professor Stephen Kane addressed the audience at a UniSQ Winter Festival of Astronomy in Toowoomba.