The COSPAR planetary protection requirements for space missions to Venus

María Paz Zorzano,Karen Olsson-Francis,Peter T. Doran,Petra Rettberg,Athena Coustenis,Vyacheslav Ilyin,Francois Raulin,Omar Al Shehhi,Frank Groen,Olivier Grasset,Akiko Nakamura,Olga Prieto Ballesteros,Silvio Sinibaldi,Yohey Suzuki,Praveen Kumar et al. The COSPAR planetary protection requirements for space missions to Venus. Life Sciences in Space Research, 2023, 37, pp.18-24.

The Committee on Space Research’s (COSPAR) Planetary Protection Policy states that all types of missions to Venus are classified as Category II, as the planet has significant research interest relative to the processes of chemical evolution and the origin of life, but there is only a remote chance that terrestrial contamination can proliferate and compromise future investigations. «Remote chance» essentially implies the absence of environments where terrestrial organisms could survive and replicate. Hence, Category II missions only require simplified planetary protection documentation, including a planetary protection plan that outlines the intended or potential impact targets, brief Pre- and Post-launch analyses detailing impact strategies, and a Post-encounter and End-of-Mission Report. These requirements were applied in previous missions and are foreseen for the numerous new international missions planned for the exploration of Venus, which include NASA’s VERITAS and DAVINCI missions, and ESA’s EnVision mission. There are also several proposed missions including India’s Shukrayaan-1, and Russia’s Venera-D. These multiple plans for spacecraft coincide with a recent interest within the scientific community regarding the cloud layers of Venus, which have been suggested by some to be habitable environments. The proposed, privately funded, MIT/Rocket Lab Venus Life Finder mission is specifically designed to assess the habitability of the Venusian clouds and to search for signs of life. It includes up to three atmospheric probes, the first one targeting a launch in 2023. The COSPAR Panel on Planetary Protection evaluated scientific data that underpins the planetary protection requirements for Venus and the implications of this on the current policy. The Panel has done a thorough review of the current knowledge of the planet’s conditions prevailing in the clouds. Based on the existing literature, we conclude that the environmental conditions within the Venusian clouds are orders of magnitude drier and more acidic than the tolerated survival limits of any known terrestrial extremophile organism. Because of this future orbital, landed or entry probe missions to Venus do not require extra planetary protection measures. This recommendation may be revised in the future if new observations or reanalysis of past data show any significant increment, of orders of magnitude, in the water content and the pH of the cloud layer.

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