NASA is Planning Two Missions to Venus to Study 'Lost Habitable' World

·4-min read

The 2020’s is the decade of space exploration, with specific countries going to the other plants in the solar system. From 2020-2030, NASA has a series of missions planned: Moon, Mars and now Venus. NASA announced two new missions to Venus on Wednesday that will launch at the end of the decade and are aimed at learning how Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor became a hellscape while our own thrived. This marks the first time the space agency will send dedicated missions to the cloudy planet in more than 30 years. The two missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions to Venus aim to take place between 2028 and 2030. The missions have been awarded about $500 million under NASA’s Discovery Program, and each is expected to launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe.

“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world, capable of melting lead at the surface,” said Bill Nelson, the agency’s newly-confirmed administrator. “They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

DAVINCI+, which stands for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, will gather more detail on the composition of Venus’ primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, to learn how it formed and evolved. The mission also seeks to determine whether the planet once had an ocean. A descent sphere will plunge through the dense atmosphere which is laced with sulfuric acid clouds. It will precisely measure the levels of noble gases and other elements to learn what gave rise to the runaway greenhouse effect we see today.

DAVINCI+ will also beam back the first high-resolution images of the planet’s “tesserae,” geological features roughly comparable with Earth’s continents whose existence suggests Venus has plate tectonics.

The results could reshape scientists’ understanding of terrestrial planet formation.

The other mission is called VERITAS, an acronym for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.

This will aim to map the Venusian surface from orbit and delve into the planet’s geologic history.

Using a form of radar that is used to create three-dimensional constructions, it will chart surface elevations and confirm whether volcanoes and earthquakes are still happening on the planet.

It will also use infrared scanning to determine rock type, which is largely unknown, and whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere.

While the mission is NASA led, the German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared mapper, while the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales will contribute to the radar and other parts of the mission.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface all the way down to its very core,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist.

“It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

“This is, to my knowledge, an unprecedented decision by NASA: to pick two missions to a single world, designed to take complementary measurements to understand the past climate and present activity of the Earth-size world next door… is absolutely remarkable,” planetary scientist Paul Byrne told Axios. “We are going to learn things we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Both missions were picked from a competitive, peer-reviewed process based on their scientific value and feasibility of their plans. NASA’s last Venus orbiter was Magellan, which arrived in 1990, but other vessels have made fly-bys since then.

But ahead of NASA, one more spacecraft is on its way to Venus – a small US aerospace company is hoping to achieve this by launching a low cost probe by 2023. Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, has ambitious plans to launch the first private robotic mission to our superheated planetary neighbour. His company has become very good at launching satellites into orbit over the past decade, however, his dream of taking the next step of an interplanetary mission received a big boost recently after a 2020 study. The research study claimed to the discovery of a chemical associated with microbial life in the planet’s corrosive and sulphuric atmosphere.

Rocket Lab plans to add to this effort with its unique commercial mission. The company will use its Electron rocket and its Photon satellite to get to Venus. The spacecraft will then send its probe weighing around 37 kilograms and just 30 centimetres in diameter that will rapidly descend through the planet’s atmosphere and pioneer a new form of interplanetary commercial exploration.

Additionally, Beck hopes that the latest space exploration program by his company will be able to shed some light on some relevant burning issues such as how unique could life be in the universe, what molecules should the probe look for, among others.

(With inputs from AFP)

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