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New promise for the Venera-D project
In 2020 and early 2021, in the wake of a high-profile but still-debated discovery by US and British scientists of the chemical phosphine, that could be associated with biological activities in the atmosphere of Venus, Roskosmos officials resumed public promises to launch the Venera-D project and to follow-on with more Russian missions to Venus.
General architecture of the Venera-D spacecraft as of 2020. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
According to a strategy presented by NPO Lavochkin in the Fall of 2020, three Russian missions were proposed:
Moreover, NPO Lavochkin's presentation said that the feasibility of a "fast-reaction" extra mission to Venus, specifically for testing the phosphine theory, had been under consideration! Needless to say, such a schedule looked beyond ambitious to anybody involved in the Venera-D project.
Indeed, on December 16, 2020, the Space Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences issued official decision No. 10310-21, stressing the importance of upcoming flights to Venus for testing the phosphine theory. However, the document pointed at the Indian Venus Orbiter Mission, with a confirmed launch date in 2024, as the first candidate for such an experiment, listing the Venera-D mission second and not even projecting its launch date.
Nevertheless, on February 26, 2021, Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin announced that the Venera-D spacecraft would be built.
In March 2021, the official TASS news agency quoted Head of Space Research Institute, IKI, Lev Zeleny as promising a multi-phase Venus exploration program that had been endorsed at a recent meeting of the leadership at Roskosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN. According to Zeleny, the exact scope of the Russian Venus exploration program would be determined by the newly initiated two-year-long design of the Venera-D spacecraft, which could fly as early as 2029, opening a new era in the Russian exploration of the planet.
Zeleny apparently referred to the start of the preliminary design of the Venera-D spacecraft, which is essentially an early paper phase in the spacecraft development requiring minimum expenses and little future obligations on the part of Roskosmos. In the past two decades, numerous innovative projects within the Russian space industry went through the preliminary design phase only to stall indefinitely at the point where their funding had to ramp up dramatically in order to transition to metal. Because by 2020 Venera-D had all but lost its status of a joint US-Russian project, Roskosmos would no longer be bound by international agreements to fund the effort and its contractors would no longer be able to benefit from the foreign experience in managing such a complex undertaking or have an easy access to foreign components.
The challenge facing Venera-D developers is underscored by the fact that in the past two decades, Russian scientists had no opportunity to fly their instruments to other planets without American or European spacecraft. The last Russian-led planetary mission, aiming at Phobos, failed hours after launch in 2011 due to profound mismanagement and inadequate avionics. In the past several years, the Russian space industry worked on improving quality control, reducing its dependence on imports and replacing the Soviet-era cadre and facilities, however, it is unclear whether these measures would be enough to overcome the increasing isolation of the country, ongoing economic challenges and management problems.
Perhaps, the 2029 launch date reflected the expected funding and technical challenges before the Venera-D project.
Venera-D mission approaches preliminary design
On Sept. 5, 2022, NPO Lavochkin announced that its Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, had approved a Technical Proposal for the Venera-D project and recommended sending it to expert organizations at Roskosmos for further review.
The formal defense of the project at the NTS meeting was attended by First Deputy Director at NPO Lavochkin Aleksandr Shirshakov and Deputy Chair of the Space Council at the Russian Academy of Sciences and Science Chief of Moscow Space Research Institute Lev Zeleny, as well as officials from Roskosmos, TsNIIMash research institute and other organizations.
Oleg Sedykh, Chief Designer of the Venera-D project and the head of a design division at NPO Lavochkin made a presentation on the architecture of the mission, its scenario and on potential landing sites on Venus, the company said.
At the time, the Venera-D mission still included orbital, atmospheric and landing vehicles, but no details on the budget or timeframe of the mission were announced.
In April 2023, the Russian government said that the Venera-D mission would be launched in June 2031 or two years later than previously advertised.
On May 15, 2023, NPO Lavochkin announced that based on the completed technical proposal, the company was working on the development schedule for the preliminary design of the Venera-D mission, coordinating technical assignments and contracts for sub-contractors in the project and forming Council of Chief Designers (to supervise its development). According to NPO Lavochkin, the development of the preliminary design for the Venera-D project was scheduled to start in January 2024.
In the same announcement, NPO Lavochkin also said that Roskosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences were evaluating the possibility of returning soil, atmosphere and aerosol samples from Venus within the Venera-V mission. The concept looked at a sequential launch of completely new search/recovery and descent spacecraft, the company said.
Mass specifications of the Venera-D spacecraft as of October 2020:
Mass specifications of the Venera-D's Descent Module as of October 2020:
Mass specifications of the Venera-D's Lander Module as of October 2020:
Architecture of the Descent Module for the Venera-D mission as envisioned in 2020. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
A depiction of the lander vehicle for the Venera-D mission circa 2020. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
A Venus approach trajectory of the Venera-D mission as envisioned in 2020. Credit: NPO Lavochkin