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Missions to Venus: Highlights From History, and When We May Go Back

Carl Sagan once said that Venus is the planet in our solar system most like hell. So when are we going back?

卡尔·萨根(Carl Sagan)曾经说过,金星是我们太阳系中最像地狱的行星。那么,我们什么时候能重返那里呢?

Astronomers on Monday reported the detection of a chemical in the acidic Venusian clouds, phosphine, which may be a possible sign of life. That has some planetary scientists itching to return to the sun’s second planet, especially those who feel Venus has long been overlooked in favor of Mars and other destinations.


“If this planet is active and is producing phosphine, and there is something that’s making it in the Venus atmosphere, then by God almighty, forget this Mars nonsense,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University. “We need a lander, an orbiter, we need a program.”

“如果这颗行星是活跃的,正在产生磷化氢,而且在金星大气层中有什么东西在制造磷化氢,那么,万能的上帝啊,忘记关于火星的废话吧,”北卡罗来纳州立大学(North Carolina State University)的行星科学家保罗·伯恩(Paul Byrne)说。“我们需要着陆器,轨道飞行器,我们需要一个项目。”

Venus is not easy to visit. Its carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere is 90 times as dense as ours, and surface temperatures average 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Its surface pressure is intense enough to crush some submarines.


But that hasn’t stopped human space programs from trying. About 40 robotic spacecraft launched by governments on Earth have tried to visit Venus in one way or another. Here are highlights from past journeys to Venus, as well as the prospects for a speedy return to the planet to find out what’s going on in those clouds.


The many Soviet visitors to Venus


In 1961, the Soviet space program began trying to explore Venus. In the decades that followed, it shot dozens of spacecraft toward the world sometimes known as Earth’s twin. While Soviet exploration of Venus started with many misfires, the country became the first to land a spacecraft on another world, and not long after, the first to take photos from the surface of another planet. Their engineering achievements were significant even by modern standards.


After seeing their first round of spacecraft sent into the atmosphere squashed like tin cans, the Soviets realized just how extreme the pressure on Venus was. This trial and error led to the construction of five-ton metal spacecraft built to withstand, even if for just an hour, the immense surface pressures.


Venera 4 in 1967 became the first spacecraft to measure the atmosphere of another planet, detecting large amounts of carbon dioxide that cause the ceaseless Venusian greenhouse effect.

1967年,“金星4号”(Venera 4)成为首个测量另一个行星大气的航天器,它探测到了大量二氧化碳,这导致了金星无休止的温室效应。

Then in 1975, the country’s Venera 9 probe became the first to take images from the surface of another planet. The world officially met Venus. The images it and later missions sent back revealed a planet that was truly like no other: cracked terrain beneath hazy, diluted neon green light. The planet we thought might have been covered in oceans and akin to our own was instead an alien world with poison rain.

然后在1975年,苏联的“金星9号”(Venera 9)成为首个在另一个行星表面拍摄图像的探测器。我们的世界正式见识到了金星。“金星9号”及其在后来的任务中传回的图像显示了一个真正独一无二的星球:布满裂缝的地表,笼罩在朦胧、散射的霓虹绿光下。我们以为这个星球可能被海洋覆盖,与地球接近,但它实际上却是个漫天毒雨的异世界。

Later missions in the Venera series into the 1980s gave scientists a better understanding of the planet’s geological processes. Venera 11 and 12 both detected large amounts of lightning and thunder as they traveled to the surface. Venera 13 and 14 were both equipped with microphones that documented the sounds of their descent to the surface, making them the first spacecraft to record audio from another planet.


In 1985 the Soviet Union concluded its Venus encounters with the twin Vega spacecraft, which each released large balloons loaded with scientific instruments, demonstrating the potential for probes that could float in the planet’s clouds.


The slowed pace of the Soviet space program toward the end of the Cold War halted launches to Venus. While the Russian space program has discussed future exploration of Venus, its concepts have not moved off the drawing board.


NASA kept its sights on Venus, too


While Mars has always seemed like the apple of the eyes of American space planners, the Mariner and Pioneer programs of the 1960s and ’70s made time for Venus.


Mariner 2 was the first American spacecraft to make it to Venus, in 1962. It determined that temperatures were cooler higher in the clouds, but extremely hot on the surface.


In 1978, the Pioneer missions gave American researchers a closer look. The first of the pair orbited the planet for nearly 14 years, revealing much about the mysterious Venusian atmosphere. It also observed the surface was smoother than Earth’s, and that Venus had very little or perhaps no magnetic field. A second Pioneer mission sent a number of probes into Venus’s atmosphere, returning information on the structure of the clouds and radar readings of the surface.


NASA’s Magellan entered into orbit in 1990 and spent four years mapping the surface and looking for evidence of plate tectonics. It discovered that nearly 85 percent of the surface was covered in old lava flows, hinting at significant past and possible present volcanic activity.


It was also the last of the American visitors, although a number of NASA spacecraft have used Venus as a slingshot as they set course for other destinations.


Other visitors to Venus


Venus Express was launched by the European Space Agency in 2005. It orbited the planet for eight years and observed that it still may have been geologically active.

2005年,“金星特快车”(Venus Express)由欧洲航天局(European Space Agency)发射升空。它环金星运行了八年,观察到它仍可能有地质活动性。

The planet’s only guest from Earth right now is Akatsuki, which was launched by Japan in 2010. The probe missed its meeting with Venus when its engine failed to fire as it headed into orbit. By 2015, the mission’s managers had managed to steer it on a course to orbit and study the planet.


It has since transformed how scientists view our clouded twin. In its study of the physics of the dense cloud layers of Venus, the mission has revealed disturbances in the planet’s winds known as gravity waves, as well as equatorial jet streams in its atmosphere.


Who’s next?


Many missions back to Venus have been proposed, and some space agencies have declared ambitions of visiting the planet. But it’s hard to say whether any will make the trip.


India’s space agency has proposed a mission called Shukrayaan-1, which will orbit the planet and primarily focus on the chemistry of the atmosphere.


Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, a private company started in New Zealand that has launched about a dozen rockets to space, has recently spoken of sending a small satellite to the planet.

彼得·贝克(Peter Beck)是火箭实验室(Rocket Lab)的创始人,这家在新西兰成立的私人企业已经向太空发射了十多枚火箭,最近,他谈到了要向金星发射一颗小型卫星的计划。

NASA has considered a number of Venus proposals in the past decade, including two in 2017 that were finalists of NASA’s Discovery program, which has previously sent explorers to the moon, Mars, Mercury and other destinations. But the agency instead selected a pair of asteroid missions.


Also in 2017, for the larger, more expensive New Frontiers competition, NASA considered a Venus mission called Venus In situ Composition Investigations, or Vici, which sought to put two landers on the planet’s surface. It was passed over for Dragonfly, which will send a plutonium-powered drone to fly on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

同样在2017年,为了进行规模更大、成本更高的“新边疆”(New Frontiers)竞赛,NASA考虑了一项名为“金星成分就地考察”的金星任务,试图在金星表面放置两个着陆器。但它将这项任务换成了“蜻蜓号”(Dragonfly),它将向土星最大的卫星土卫六发射一架钚动力无人机。

NASA, however, did provide money for some of the technologies that Vici would need. And Venus proponents may have a new advocate inside NASA. Lori S. Glaze, the principal investigator of Vici, is now the planetary science division director at NASA.

不过,NASA确实为Vici任务需要的一些技术提供了资金。而且NASA内部或许又有了一位新的金星任务支持者。Vici任务的首席研究员洛瑞·S·格蕾斯(Lori S. Glaze),如今是NASA的行星科学部主任。

The agency will have another chance to pick a Venus mission for funding in the next round of its Discovery program.


Two Venus spacecraft, named DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, are competing against proposed missions to Neptune’s moon Triton or Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. NASA may select two of the four finalists. And there could be other possibilities for visitors to Venus.


“We should also recognize that Venus is a planetary destination we can reach with smaller missions as well,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s science mission directorate.

“我们也应该认识到,金星是一个我们可以通过规模较小的任务就能抵达的行星目的地,”NASA的科学任务理事会主席托马斯·祖布钦(Thomas Zurbuchen)说。