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Unveiling the Mysteries of the Venusian Atmosphere

Q. What is your research area in planetary science? How did you become interested in it?

Dr. Anthony Colaprete and a colleague reviewing the initial data from LCROSS (Courtesy of Dominic Hart / NASA Ames)
Dr. Anthony Colaprete and a colleague reviewing the initial data from LCROSS (Courtesy of Dominic Hart / NASA Ames)

My background is actually in planetary climatology. I did climate models with clouds, and studied the effects of clouds on the Earth and Martian climate, as well as Venus and other planets. I made a 3D dynamical model that simulates Martian weather and climate. And I also have a background in instrumentation. I worked on a number of solar missions, looking at ultraviolet variability from the sun and associating it with features on the sun. Then I got into studying the effects of impacts on the Martian and Earth climate, and that’s how I started learning about impact processes. I was modeling the impact effects on the Martian climate, and that’s how I got into this mission. Somebody said, "We’re interested in impacting the moon. I think Tony knows something about calculating how much dust would be thrown up." And, in a way, my background of studying dusty atmospheres was important, because that’s what we did - we basically created a very short, transient dusty atmosphere on the Moon and studied it.
How did I get interested? My father was involved in the space program - the Apollo and shuttle programs - so I’ve been interested in space since I was child. But I’ve always also been interested in climate systems - or complex systems, non-linear systems - and a planet is a fun system to study. It kind of combined my love of understanding complex systems with my love of space, into a fun area to work in.

Q. Japan’s Venus explorer was launched this year. It’s another exciting mission, to study the Venusian atmosphere. What are your thoughts on this project?

Venus Climate orbiter Akatsuki (Courtesy of Akihiro Ikeshita)
Venus Climate orbiter Akatsuki (Courtesy of Akihiro Ikeshita)

You know, there are just some basic fundamental questions that we don’t have even the simplest answers to, regarding Venus. So these missions - going there and studying it - are critical to taking the next step in Venus science. It’s been a while since we did this.
All the planets in the solar system are laboratories in a sense, and getting to Venus and studying it in similar ways to how we’ve studied Mars, the moon, the gas giants, etc. helps us understand how all the systems work. You can do comparative planetology - you can compare the systems to each other and learn so much more than if you just studied any one of them.
I am involved with a Venus mission right now, actually, through New Frontiers. They want a Phase A study to go to the surface of Venus, and I’m the lead for the atmospheric structure investigation, so in a way it’s very much related to some of the things that these other Venus missions are measuring. It’s very exciting, and I think it’s going to provide some fundamental new insight into the Venus climate.

Endless Passion for Planetary Exploration

Q. What is your next project after LCROSS?

Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) (Courtesy of NASA)
Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) (Courtesy of NASA)

Right now I’m wrapping up LCROSS. We’re still working on a lot of the data, but I am also the principal investigator of the ultraviolet visible spectrometer on LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), which is a lunar orbiter jointly managed by NASA Ames and the Goddard Space Flight Center. It’s going to launch at the end of 2012. Q. What is the next goal in your field of research?I’m going to get back to some of the Mars questions we’re looking at: the Mars climate, the ancient Mars climate, and how impacts might have affected those. I’m involved with a Lunar mission and a Venus mission, and I don’t know that I have a specific next goal except to stop pursuing so much. It’s all so interesting, I can’t help it.

Verging on a Golden Era of Planetary Exploration

Q. What are your expectations for Japanese planetary missions?

Dr. Anthony Colaprete at a press conference (Courtesy of NASA)
Dr. Anthony Colaprete at a press conference (Courtesy of NASA)

What’s thrilling is that there’s so much participation by JAXA, and I know there’s a mission being planned that I’m very, very interested in. The Venus mission is going to be spectacular, and so is the Lunar mission, so it’s very exciting that so many other nations are now actively participating in planetary exploration.
I think there was a period of time in the last half century that people have often referred to as the golden years of astronomy, where we’ve been able to produce telescopes and imagers that have allowed us to do unheard of, incredible things. It looks to me that, with space flight and interplanetary flight now possible by so many nations, we’re verging on a golden era of planetary exploration, where our understanding of the solar system is going to expand exponentially.
Over the last few years, space development has been experiencing a financially difficult time for various reasons. But planetary exploration is an investment for the future, and I hope that it brings benefits to all people of the Earth, without being influenced by one nation’s policies or economic situation.

Q. What is the charm of planetary exploration for you?

That’s really hard to say. I think that by studying other worlds, we learn a lot about our own. It’s imagining what it would be like to be on the surface of those worlds, how they came to be, what other worlds may exist beyond our solar system. What I find charming about it is that there’s no limit to one’s imagination when you start thinking about these things. Planetary exploration inspires our imagination limitlessly. That’s one of its most attractive points.

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