After 30 years, NASA has finally decided to return to our neighbor planet Venus with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions.
The new robots are part of NASA’s Discovery Program which aims to understand how Venus became a hell-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours.
Scientists sometimes refer to Venus as the sister planet to Earth. That’s because they have nearly the same size, gravity, density, mass, and chemical makeup.
The scorching world is our closest planetary neighbor and the second planet from the Sun. It’s also the third brightest object in Earth’s sky after the Sun and Moon.
Venus may have actually been the first habitable world in the solar system, with an ocean and Earth-like climate. Who knows, maybe even life. But something happened to turn it into a planet with temperatures hot enough to melt lead.
The reason Venus is so hot is mainly because of its atmosphere. The very thick atmosphere traps most of the heat that comes from the Sun and doesn’t let it escape back into space. Scientists call this trapping of heat by the atmosphere the greenhouse effect. This causes the temperatures at Venus’ surface to reach 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius). Thus, making it the hottest planet in the entire solar system!
The last time NASA visited the scorching world was in 1989 with its Magellan mission.
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Now, NASA is finally launching two robots to find out what turned Venus into an inferno-like world.
One mission will focus on the Venusian atmosphere. The other will map the planet’s surface which is hidden by an opaque layer of clouds formed from sulphuric acid.
DAVINCI+, slated to launch around 2029, will mark the first US-led mission into the Venusian clouds since 1978 when NASA’s second Pioneer probe plunged into Venus’ atmosphere for scientific reasons.
The Soviet Union is the only nation to intentionally and controllably land spacecraft on the surface of the planet. The Soviet spacecraft, Venera 13, was the first lander to transmit colored images from the surface of Venus. Russian engineers designed the spacecraft to last about half an hour on Venus’ harsh surface. However, it ended up transmitting data for more than 2 hours after its landing on March 1, 1982.
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Now, NASA expects DAVINCI+ to last only 20 minutes on the surface after completing two flyby passes to image Venusian clouds.
The probe will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved. It will also find out whether the planet ever had an ocean.
A 2019 study suggests Venus likely maintained stable temperatures and hosted liquid water for billions of years before an event triggered drastic changes in the planet. In that study, scientists at the Goddard Institute of Space Science compared five climate simulations of Venus’ past and every scenario suggested that the planet could support liquid water and a temperate climate on its surface for at least three billion years.
DAVINCI+ will drop into Venus’ atmosphere and free-fall through the thick clouds for about an hour before reaching the surface. On the way down, it will take atmospheric samples, specifically measuring a variety of gases including argon, krypton, and xenon. Different climate histories for Venus would lead to different ratios of these noble gases in the atmosphere. And so by analyzing these ratios, scientists will be able to work out how much water the planet formed with, and even how much water it has lost over the past 4.5 billion years.
Interest in Venus spiked last year when a team of astronomers announced the detection of phosphine in Venus’ clouds. Phosphine is made primarily by living organisms. And that’s why the chemical generated buzz that Venus could somehow harbor life within its acidic clouds.
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The second mission, VERITAS, is a probe NASA plans to launch around 2028, just before DAVINCI+. It will orbit Venus and map its surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it evolved so differently than Earth.
VERITAS will use its synthetic aperture radar to chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet. Thus, creating 3D reconstructions of topography and finding out how active Venus is volcanically through plate tectonic processes. The spacecraft could also study infrared emissions coming off the planet’s surface.
Both missions will carry technology demonstrations on them, including the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 to enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers on VERITAS, and the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer to measure ultraviolet light in the Venusian atmosphere, to be hosted by DAVINCI+.
Just before impacting a crash landing into an area called Alpha Regio that has some of the oldest rocks on the planet, DAVINCI+ will take infrared images of the surface as it comes into view through the obscurity of the lower atmosphere. Those images will be the first-ever that our robots have taken from above the surface but below the cloud deck, showing Venus as never before.
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DAVINCI+ name is short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging Plus. The VERITAS mission, on the other hand, stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.
Each mission will receive a $500 million award for development.
The two Discovery-class missions that competed with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were TRIDENT, which would’ve studied Neptune’s icy moon Triton, and the Io Volcano Observer (IVO), which would’ve studied the tidal forces on Jupiter’s moon Io.
Furthermore, the Indian Space Research Organisation wants to send an orbiter called Shukrayaan to Venus in 2024. The mission will map surface and subsurface features, along with studying the atmosphere’s interaction with the solar wind. Also, Roscosmos, the Russian space organization, is planning a collaborative effort with European Space Agency scientists to launch an orbiter-lander combo—the Venera-D—to study water content and seismic activity among other objectives in 2029.
Venus is surely experiencing a scientific renaissance. As our understanding of Venus is getting richer, more and more people are starting to think that the planet might not be as dead and dry as many thought it to be–or at least that it wasn’t at some point in its past.