Venus mission remains a priority to Mount Holyoke professor

Though rock and soil samples collected on Mars could reveal much about its history, Mount Holyoke College professor M. Darby Dyar thinks a costly mission to retrieve them could draw resources away from other projects searching for life.

In one of the boldest undertakings in NASA’s history, a robot from Earth has spent the past three years on Mars collecting rock and soil samples in six-inch-long tubes as part of the Mars Sample Return Mission. The robot, a rover named Perseverance, has placed some of the sealed tubes on the red planet’s surface and stored the other two dozen samples inside its own belly.

Perseverance is intended to remain permanently on Mars, and the majority of its packaged samples are supposed to be retrieved by spacecraft and returned to Earth.

While the Mars Sample Return mission could uncover new information about the planet’s history — especially if the samples are successfully delivered to Earth — officials from NASA recently announced that the mission is behind schedule and has become a far too expensive endeavor. Its estimated $11 billion cost is nearly twice as high as experts’ initial predictions.

Some scientists worry that the mission will divert resources from other potential projects to search for life on celestial bodies other than Mars that they think are more promising places to look. One project that now has funding back in the budget and is slated to launch in 2031 is the mission to Venus, also known as VERITAS, which stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.

Mount Holyoke Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy M. Darby Dyar, who is also the deputy principal investigator of the VERITAS mission, recently spoke with The Atlantic about how she feels that Mars is no longer one of the most likely spots to find extraterrestrial life.

“If anybody should be enthusiastic about the returned samples, it’s me, and I am,” said Dyar, adding that she would not prioritize the mission to Mars over her current research.

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