NASA sends two missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years

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The agency has picked two new robotic missions to explore the hot infernal world of Venus, Earth’s neighbor and second planet from the sun, Administrator Bill Nelson announced Wednesday. The two missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, were among four competing proposals under the latest round of NASA’s Discovery Program, which operates smaller planetary exploration missions with a small budget of approximately $500 million each.

“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead on the surface,” Nelson said during his first State of NASA speech at agency headquarters on Wednesday. in Washington, DC. “They will give the entire scientific community a chance to explore a planet we haven’t been to in over 30 years.”

DAVINCI+, scheduled for launch around 2029, will be the first US-led mission to Venus’ atmosphere since 1978, when NASA’s second Pioneer mission plunged into the clouds of Venus for scientific research. The spacecraft will fly past Venus twice to take close-up photos of the planet’s surface before throwing a robotic probe into its thick atmosphere to measure its gases and other elements.

An image of Venus captured by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe last summer shows the planet’s mysterious night side, revealing a surprisingly bright image of its surface.
NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory/Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

Interest in Venus peaked last year during NASA’s assessment of the four missions, when a separate international team of researchers published findings that the noxious gas, phosphine, may have been floating in Venus’ clouds — an intriguing theory hinting at the first signs of twitching. world life, as phosphine is known to be mainly made by living organisms. But other researchers disputed the team’s findings, leaving the phosphine theory open. DAVINCI+’s plunge through Venus’ atmosphere could finally solve that mystery.

When the research was published, NASA’s previous administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “It’s time to prioritize Venus.” NASA’s science collaborator, Thomas Zurbuchen, explains: The edge that while the two probes could help confirm the phosphine research, they were chosen for their scientific value, proposed timeline, and other factors independent of the phosphine findings.

The second mission, VERITAS, is a probe that will be launched around 2028, just ahead of DAVINCI+. It will orbit Venus and map its surface, much like NASA’s Magellan probe did for four years starting in 1990, but with a much sharper focus that will give scientists a better picture of geologic history. of the planet. It will use a synthetic aperture radar and track surface elevations to “create 3D topography reconstructions and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus,” NASA said in a statement.

Another camera on VERITAS will be sensitive to a wavelength that could detect signs of water vapor in Venus’ atmosphere, which, if detected, could indicate that active volcanoes were outgassing on the planet’s surface some time ago. goods.

Taken together, the two missions make it clear that NASA is finally going all in on Venus, a spicy hot planet that has long been sidelined by other more scientifically popular planets like Mars. The two Discovery-class missions competing with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were TRIDENT, which is said to have studied Neptune’s icy moon Triton, and the Io Volcano Observer (IVO), which is said to have studied tidal forces on Jupiter’s moon Io.

The twin missions to Venus aim to confront the possibility that the planet was once habitable. “Venus is closer to the sun, it’s a greenhouse now, but it might have been different once,” said Thomas Wagner, head of NASA’s Discovery program. The edge. By studying the planet’s atmosphere closely, scientists can get clues as to how it evolved over time so that Venus can become the hellish world it is today, with surface temperatures of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

The missions can also help scientists learn to look at exoplanets, distant planets in other solar systems. Though hot and uninhabitable, Venus is in the Goldilocks zone of our solar system, a term scientists use to characterize the position of exoplanets whose distances from the sun are just right to promote life. Venus, Wagner says, could be a model, right next to Earth, to help us understand more distant exoplanets. The planet’s distance from our sun also raises equally intriguing questions about why Venus turned into the hell it is today.

“Since Venus is in the goldilocks zone, we want to know what the hell happened on Venus,” Wagner says.