Robot invasion: European Space Agency also sending mission to Venus

3 robotic missions planned to study Earth’s fiery twin plus Rocket Lab’s private missions

The image shows Earth (left) and Venus (right), and how similar they are in size. The EnVision mission (spacecraft render in image) aims to answer some of these key questions, and the NASA-provided EnVision Venus Synthetic Aperture Radar (VenSAR) will play a center role. The VenSAR will be built and operated by JPL. Credit: European Space Agency / Paris Observatory / VR2Planets (NASA JPL 2021)

It appears it’s finally time for Venus to shine. With the announcement of a European Space Agency robotic mission to the fiery world, there are now three publicly funded missions planned to explore Venus in the next decade.

Last week, NASA’s Discovery Program selected not one but two spacecraft proposals to send to Venus. The agency had been considering four planetary mission proposals since last February, including two Venus missions, but the NASA administrator announced both missions to the toxic world had been picked.

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On Thursday, the European Space Agency revealed it too is planning a science mission to the hellscape of Venus. The spacecraft called EnVision will make detailed observations of the planet “to understand its history and especially understand the connections between the atmosphere and geologic processes,” according to a news release.

NASA will provide one of the spacecraft’s science instruments in the form of a synthetic aperture radar, called VenSAR, that will take high-resolution measurements of the planet’s surface features.

“I am delighted that the synergistic capabilities of these three new missions will transform our fundamental understanding of Venus,” NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said in a statement. “ESA’s EnVision mission will provide unparalleled high-resolution imaging and polarimetry capabilities. High-resolution images of many dynamic processes at Mars profoundly changed the way we thought about the Red Planet and images at similar scales have the potential to do the same for Venus.”

For NASA’s missions, the 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 used to look a lot like Earth’s.

The mission principal investigator James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said the mission was named after Leonardo da Vinci for his Renaissance thinking that went beyond science and art.

The second NASA 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.

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

With NASA and ESA missions, there will now be at least three robotic explorers headed to the hellish world of Venus and NASA is calling it a “triple crown” moment for the science community, but those missions don’t include Rocket Lab’s private mission planned in the next few years.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told News 6 last year the company is preparing to send a series of probes down to the Venusian surface starting in 2023.

“I’ve always had a fascination for Venus, for a couple of reasons,” Beck said. “Venus is a very close analogue to Earth, you know, similar mass, similar size. But you know, it’s a planet that has had complete climate change runaway. And I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that.”

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

Why Venus, why now?

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 which could have big climate change implications for our home world of Earth.

The NASA missions will mark the first U.S.-led missions to the Venusian atmosphere since 1978.

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