NASA selects two robotic missions to study the fiery world of Venus

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will study Earth’s twin

DAVINCI+ will send a meter-diameter probe to brave the high temperatures and pressures near Venus’ surface to explore the atmosphere from above the clouds to near the surface of a terrain that may have been a past a continent. Credits: NASA GSFC visualization by CI Labs Michael Lentz and others (WKMG 2021)

NASA has selected not one, but two proposed robotic missions to visit the fiery hell hole of Venus, Bill Nelson revealed during his state of NASA address.

NASA’s Discovery Program selects and launches small to medium missions to explore our solar system. The agency had been considering four mission proposals since last February, including two Venus missions. On Wednesday, the NASA administrator announced both missions to the toxic world had been picked.

These missions will mark the first U.S.-led missions to the Venusian atmosphere since 1978. The other two missions to study Jupiter’s moon Io and another to Neptune’s moon Triton were not selected.

At least 800 million-odd years ago, Venus was a very different planet than it is today. Today, the surface temperatures are about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the clouds are primarily made of sulfuric acid and it’s no place humans will ever set foot. All those years ago it is thought to have looked more like Earth. Scientists are eager to study this inhospitable world to determine what happened.

[SPACE CURIOUS PODCAST: There’s more than 1 way to send a spacecraft to Venus | The curious tale of searching for signs of life on Venus]

Under the Discovery program, these missions typically cost less than $500 million to design, build and send to their destination. That’s not chump change, but when compared to NASA’s largest robotic missions — known as flagship or strategic missions — that cost several billion dollars, this is a relatively small cost.

The goal of Discovery is fundamental to understanding our solar system and how we got here.

“We hope these missions will further understanding of how Earth evolved, and why it’s currently habitable. When others in our solar system are not planetary science is critical in answering key questions that we have as humans like, Are we alone?” Nelson said. “What implications beyond our solar system could these two missions have.”

Diving into the Venusian clouds

Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging known as DAVINCI+ will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as determine whether the planet ever had an ocean. A sphere will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, taking measurements as it goes down of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is so hot when it possibly use to look a lot like Earth’s.

The mission principal investigator is James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where the mission will be managed.

Gavin said the mission was named after Leonardo da Vinci for his Renaissance thinking that went beyond science and art.

“Venus is a ‘Rosetta stone’ for reading the record books of climate change, the evolution of habitability, and what happens when a planet loses a long period of surface oceans,” Garvin said in a statement. “But Venus is ‘hard’ since every clue is hidden behind the curtain of a massive opaque atmosphere with inhospitable conditions for surface exploration, so we have to be clever and bring our best ‘tools of science’ to Venus in innovative ways with missions like DAVINCI+.”

Why is Venus a hellscape?

The second mission, Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy or VERITAS, is an orbiter that will circle the planet charting the Venusian geology to understand why it evolved so differently to Earth.

Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is the principal investigator for VERITAS.

The spacecraft contains several instruments that will measure the Venusian geology. The German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared mapper with the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales are contributing to the radar and other parts of the mission, according to NASA.

“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,” NASA’s Discovery Program scientist Tom Wagner said. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

Both project teams will work to finalize their mission plans and are expected to launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe.

In addition to these two missions, private company Rocket Lab is planning to send several probes to Venus, beginning in 2023.

To learn more about how the Discovery Program selects missions and the Rocket Lab spacecraft listen to this episode of Space Curious.