The first astronauts visiting Mars should make a Venus “pitstop” beforehand, according to a leading expert.
Noam Izenberg, a planetary geologist at Johns Hopkins University, told Space.com missions to the Red Planet would be more effective if they “involve a Venus flyby on the way to or on the way home”.
Izenberg joins a growing group of space scientists and engineers calling for crewed missions to Mars to also stop by Venus.
In a draft paper on the topic, set to be peer reviewed at Acta Astronautica, they say using Venus as en-route service station to Mars isn’t just an added extra, but would prove essential to the success of the inter planetary voyage.
Co-author Kirby Runyon, a planetary geomorphologist at Johns Hopkins University believes resolutely “Venus is how you get to Mars”.
“You … greatly simplify the logistics of going to Mars, especially from the perspective of crew health,” Runyon said.
The Venus pitstop is one of two plans currently being debated, as there are complex factors at play.
The option would see spacecraft zoom past the terrestrial planet, using its gravitational force to pivot and change course toward Mars.
It’s argued piggybacking on Venus would dramatically reduce the amount of energy and costs needed for the trip.
While the other option would see future spacemen going direct from Earth to Mars. To do this they would first need to wait for the planets’ orbits to align.
The same tactic would be followed on the return journey, but would mean waiting a year and a half before the planets lined up again.
While the direct option means 26 months in between journey times, the window of opportunity to slingshot via Venus would arise every 19 months.
For these reasons Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University who also contributed to the Venus plan, said: “It’s preferable to fly by Venus for a ‘gravity assist’ on the way to Mars.”
Venus itself could also prove to be as valuable a destination as Mars with manned crews exploring both to kill two birds with one stone.
“There’s science at two planets for much less than the price of two separate crewed missions,” Byrne said.
He is also advocating for astronauts to pilot drones on Venus’ surface to make the most of the exploratory opportunities.
NASA has not confirmed publicly how it plans to get to Mars but Runyon believes there is evidence it is exploring a Venus fly-by mission.
Referring to a NASA report released in April he said: “Assuming that this report is talking about normal forms of propulsion the only way you can get to Mars and back in two years is if you include a Venus flyby.”
Previously the US announced 2030 as the date of a crewed surface landing to Mars, with prior rover missions currently underway to support the human mission.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance will look for signs of previous life forms on the Red Planet, assess its climate, its geology and prove it can successfully deploy technologies for utilising natural resources in the Martian environment to support human life.
The NASA rover is set to launch between July 22 and August 11 this summer and land on Martian soil on February 18, 2021 if all goes to plan.
It will be the fifth exploratory vehicle on the Red Planet following in the tyre tracks of Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s the Science Mission Directorate, earlier this year said: “Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries.”
According to current estimates it is hoped just 110 people will be needed to create an independent colony on Mars.