Paul Byrne
Paul stands in front of the under-construction BepiColombo Mercury Transfer Module at the ESA European Space Research and Technology Centre high bay in 2016. Author: Paul Byrne
2024

Paul Byrne

Planetary Scientist

The Skies of Venus

meet paul

Paul Byrne received his degrees in geology from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC on NASA’s MESSENGER mission, the first to orbit the planet Mercury. After a second fellowship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, he moved to North Carolina State University as an assistant and then associate professor. He became Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis in 2021, and chaired the panel on Venus for the National Academies 2023–2032 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey. His research focuses on comparing and contrasting the surfaces and interiors of planetary bodies, including Earth, to understand why planets look the way they do.

The Skies of Venus
Nominated by: Nina Lanza, FN'20
Class of 2024 Location Ireland
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Byrne is totally keeping his cool in front of the first subscale flight prototype of a variable-altitude balloon designed to fly through the skies of Venus.
Byrne is totally keeping his cool in front of the first subscale flight prototype of a variable-altitude balloon designed to fly through the skies of Venus. Author: Paul Byrne

Herman Melville wrote, in Moby Dick, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” That notion resonated with me from a very early age, and ultimately helped drive me to explore planets.

Not in person, of course—too few have had that privilege. But since 2011 I have been actively involved in the planning and implementation of robotic spacecraft missions to other planetary bodies. I have barely scratched that itch.

I have, however, developed an understanding of how the planetary phenomena we are so familiar with on Earth—volcanoes, quakes, even wind and weather—are expressed on other bodies throughout the Solar System. And with that understanding has come a realization of just how unique, distinctive, precious our own world is. Although the notes are the same, the music is different on each body. And only Earth has the full symphony.

So I have become increasingly driven to not only understand why planets look the way they do, but to share that information as widely as I can. At a time when we’re facing a rapidly worsening climate emergency and geopolitical tensions along wholly arbitrary lines, the peaceful exploration of space offers people a source of inspiration, pride, hope… and, perhaps, even a little humility. The more we explore other worlds, the more we’re learning just how rare our own planet is. As tantalizing as I still find forbidden seas and barbarous coasts, I am increasingly focused on helping others appreciate the value of home, and the need to protect it.

I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

- Herman Melville
Byrne gives a keynote talk in a special “Exploring the Solar System” session as part of the AGU Centennial Central event series at the 2019 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.
Byrne gives a keynote talk in a special “Exploring the Solar System” session as part of the AGU Centennial Central event series at the 2019 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Author: Paul Byrne

For two years I’ve led a remarkable team of scientists and engineers in the design of a mission to Venus. Our mission concept, which we call “Phantom,” features a balloon able to carry instruments and passively float through the Venus clouds on winds for weeks or even months. Such a vehicle could take unprecedented measurements of the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and even interior—addressing key questions of Venus’ formation, climate evolution, and levels of geological activity today.

Why do this? Because we have circumstantial but compelling evidence that, at some point in the past, Venus had oceans just as Earth today. And that, at some point thereafter, Venus underwent a climate catastrophe that ultimately stripped those oceans into space. Could such a fate befall Earth? Was Venus unlucky? Or is it some quirk of fate that Earth hasn’t turned into Venus (yet)? These are fundamental questions of planetary habitability, with bearing on not only our understanding of how our own world has remained livable for billions of years but whether we should expect to find more Earths than Venuses in orbit of other stars… or vice versa. The technologies required for this mission concept are being developed by people far more talented and capable than I. The scientists working on this concept are second to none, and I’m honored to call them colleagues. And so I strive as the leader of this team to support, advocate for, and enable their efforts to realize this mission concept—this dream of ours—and answer some of the biggest questions in planetary science we have. Exploration today is a collective effort, but I am committed to playing my role to push the boundaries of how, where, and we why explore.

never stop exploring

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