Larry Esposito, a researcher at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Larry Esposito, a researcher at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. (University of Colorado)

University of Colorado scientist Larry Esposito has been waiting for 18 years to send a spacecraft back to Venus.

On Tuesday, he learned that he just might get his chance.

Esposito's proposal to send a spacecraft to Venus is one of three finalists for NASA's next mission to a celestial body in the solar system.

Each of the three proposed missions -- which would probe Venus' atmosphere and crust, return a piece of an asteroid to Earth for analysis or drop a robotic lander into a basin on the moon's south pole -- will receive $3.3 million to complete a 12-month-long concept study.

The last time NASA sent a probe to Venus' surface was in 1978, when Pioneer Venus Project dropped four probes through the planet's thick atmosphere. An orbiter, launched the same year, continued to send information back to Earth about Venus until 1992, when it fell into the planet's atmosphere and burned up.

That's when Esposito, who was part of both projects, began lobbying for another mission to Venus.

"I've been proposing a mission to Venus since 1992," he said. "I've already had 18 years of experience writing proposals."

If Esposito, a researcher at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and his team are successful, the mission to Venus will be the largest space project ever led by CU. The cost of the Venus mission, not including the launch vehicle, would likely be about $650 million.


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The cost of CU's upcoming mission to Mars, the largest research grant awarded to CU so far, is about $485 million.

Esposito's long fascination with Venus is rooted in what the planet -- which is similar to Earth in mass, composition and distance from the sun -- can teach us about our own.

"Venus is like a twin sister of the Earth, and it's gone terribly bad," Esposito said. "The problem is global warming. The same problem we may have on the Earth."

CU's proposed mission to Venus would send a lander to the edge of the Mielikki Mons volcano on the planet's surface. There it would take pictures, measure the composition of the surface and even dig down below the planet's crust to give scientists more information about its history.

Conditions on Venus are so harsh -- the average temperature is 872 degrees -- that the lander is only expected to survive and send data back for three hours. But that's still three times longer than the 1978 surface probes lasted.

NASA will make a final decision about which of the three proposals to fund in mid-2011.

"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement released Tuesday to announce the finalists.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or sniderl@dailycamera.com.