Soviets launch two Venus probes; US scientists chafe on the sidelines
While American eyes were on the space shuttle in November, Soviet eyes were on Venus. The USSR now has two of the most ambitious Venus probes ever designed on the way to that cloud-shrouded planet. Launched with little fanfare Oct. 30 and Nov. 4 respectively, Venera 13 and 14 carry landing craft equipped for sophisticated analyses of the Venusian surface. These craft could open up what Harold Masursky of the US Geological Survey calls ''major-element chemistry'' - analysis of minerals in rocks - in Venusian exploration.
Thus, even though the Soviets have already soft-landed six probes on Venus, the present mission, if successful, could bring a significant advance in scientific knowledge.
It was ironic that these latest Veneras were launched virtually coincidentally with the second shuttle flight test. This has emphasized Soviet persistence in planetary exploration at a time when the Reagan admin-istration is forcing US scientists virtually toabandon it in favor of concentrating limited funds on the shuttle.
For the Soviets, the Venus mission continues their long-established program of planetary exploration which has run in parallel with the highly successful effort to establish the capacity to maintain a manned Earth-orbiting space station. The Soviets plan yet another Venus mission for 1984 or 1985. This would put two more landers on that planet while the mother craft go on to rendezvous with Halley's comet. If this is done successfully, US space scientists will, once again, have to watch in frustration as their Soviet counterparts carry out research which they badly want to do and which the administration feels unable to support.
Meanwhile the present Venus mission reflects some remarkable cooperation between US and Soviet scientists in spite of cold war tensions. At a regular planetary-data exchange meeting in October, US scientists gave the Soviets a copy of the latest Venus map produced by the Pioneer Venus orbiter spacecraft. The Soviets now are using that map to help them guide Venera 13 and 14 to sites of particular scientific interest southeast of a region called Beta Regio. Young lowland crust and older upland crust may both be sampled in what is believed to be a volcanically active area.
Once there, the landers have to work under severe conditions - 900 degree F. temperatures and an atmospheric pressure 90 times that on Earth at sea level. Drilling into the surface, the landers can bring samples inside their shells for analysis under much lower temperature and pressure. One of the unknowns, at this point, is whether or not the landers themselves can survive long enough to gather useful data and send them to Earth. Soviet engineers have shown an increasing ability to meet this challenge over the past 15 years.
Humanity has only begun to explore the solar system in which we live. Is it really prudent for the US to abandon this important research to others?