NASA has announced two new missions to Venus to examine the planet’s atmosphere and geological features.
The missions to Earth’s closest neighbour will aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours. The planet may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate. A funding awarded of $500m (£352m) per mission had been granted for development with the launch planned for between 2028 and 2030.
“We’re revving up our planetary science programme with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programmes, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse. Our goals are profound. It is not just understanding the evolution of planets and habitability in our own solar system, but extending beyond these boundaries to exoplanets, an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”
“Astounding how little we know about Venus”
Zurbuchen added that he expects powerful synergies across NASA’s science programmes, including the James Webb Space Telescope. He anticipated that data from these missions will be used by the broadest possible cross section of the scientific community.
Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist said: “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. It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
The last probe to visit the planet was the Magellan orbiter in 1990. Venus is the second planet from the sun and is the hottest planet in the solar system with a surface temperature of 500C.
Missions were part of NASA’s Discovery Program
The investigations are the final selections from four mission concepts NASA picked in February 2020 as part of the agency’s Discovery 2019 competition. Following a competitive, peer-review process, the two missions were chosen based on their potential scientific value and the feasibility of their development plans. The project teams will now work to finalise their requirements and designs.
The selected missions are:
DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) 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. The mission consists of a descent sphere that will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a hothouse compared the Earth’s.
DAVINCI+ will also return the first high resolution pictures of Venus’ unique geological features known as “tesserae,” which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, suggesting that Venus has plate tectonics.
VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth. Orbiting Venus with a synthetic aperture radar, VERITAS will chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus.
VERITAS will map infrared emissions from Venus’ surface to map its rock type, which is largely unknown, and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapour into the atmosphere. The German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared mapper with the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales contributing to the radar and other parts of the mission.
Technology demonstrations will fly along with missions
NASA has also selected a pair of technology demonstrations to fly along with the two missions. VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, built by JPL and funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The ultra-precise clock signal generated with this technology will ultimately help enable autonomous spacecraft manoeuvrers and enhance radio science observations.
DAVINCI+ will host the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS) built by Goddard. CUVIS will make high resolution measurements of ultraviolet light using a new instrument based on freeform optics. Observations will be used to determine the nature of the unknown ultraviolet absorber in Venus’ atmosphere which absorbs up to half the incoming solar energy.
NASA’s Discovery Program was established in 1992 and, since then, has supported the development and implementation of over 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the ninth Discovery Program competition.