The solar system’s new hot destination is Venus. NASA has announced two missions to study Earth’s nearest neighbour, both expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.
The first mission is called Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI+). It consists of a spherical probe that will parachute through the planet’s toxic atmosphere, measuring the atmosphere’s composition and structure on its way down to the surface, where it is likely to melt within a few minutes of landing.
If all goes well on the descent, DAVINCI+ will also take close-up pictures of strange surface features called tesserae that some researchers think will be the key to understanding Venus’s geological history.
DAVINCI+ may also shed some light on observations of phosphine gas in Venus’s atmosphere, which have been controversial since they were announced in September 2020. If the spacecraft finds compelling evidence of the chemical phosphine, it may be a sign of life in the Venusian clouds.
The other mission is an orbiter called Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS). “SAR” in the name stands for synthetic aperture radar, a system that will allow VERITAS to peer through Venus’s thick atmosphere to build a 3D model of its surface features. The orbiter will also carry devices to measure the composition of the planet’s surface and look for active volcanism and liquid on the surface.
These two spacecraft were selected from four finalists as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, through which the agency funds relatively small and inexpensive planetary missions. Previous Discovery missions include Mars Pathfinder, which carried the first Mars rover, the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, the Kepler space telescope and the InSight Mars lander.
The other two missions up for selection were the Io Volcano Observer (IVO) and Trident. IVO was proposed to explore Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Trident would have explored Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, with the aim of understanding how icy moons can become habitable worlds.
Now that the selection process is over, the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS teams will each get about $500 million to further develop their mission concepts. When they launch, they will mark NASA’s first missions to Venus in nearly 40 years.
“VERITAS and DAVINCI+ will not answer all our outstanding Venus questions, but they will enable us to take a massive step forward in understanding why our planetary sibling isn’t our twin,” says Paul Byrne at North Carolina State University.
These two missions together will help us figure out why Venus and Earth are so different. While the two are similar sizes and at relatively similar distances from the sun, Earth is lush and green and Venus is an inhospitable hellscape. It’s not clear exactly when or how they diverged, but understanding that could be crucial in the hunt for habitable worlds beyond our solar system.
“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 Thomas Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist, in a statement. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
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