On June 2nd, NASA unveiled two new missions to return to Venus. NASA’s last mission was Magellan, an orbiter launched in 1989 which deorbited in 1994 and successfully mapped the entire Venusian surface, including its volcanoes, craters, and domes.
These two missions are part of NASA’s Discovery Program and aim to understand how Venus became the hellish world it is, even though there are many characteristics that make it similar to Earth. It also aims to study whether it was once habitable, with an ocean and Earth-like climate.
The first mission is DAVINCI+, or the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, and it will be sent to our closest neighboring planet to explore Venus’ atmosphere and try to solve how it was formed and evolved, and more importantly, determine if there was ever an ocean there. The atmospheric probe will study the chemical composition of the atmosphere as it descends down to the surface, as it samples the air, and precisely measures noble gases and other elements to understand the planet’s strong greenhouse effect.
Additionally, it will also shoot the first high-resolution pictures of the unique geological features of the surface, known as “tesserae,” which could be similar to the Earth’s continents and suggest that Venus had plate tectonics. This will be the first US mission into Venus’ crushing atmosphere since 1978, and learning from the DAVINCI+ mission may help us understand how terrestrial planets were formed in our solar system and beyond.
Secondly, VERITAS, or Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, is an orbiter that will be sent to map Venus’ surface to help study the geologic history and determine how it developed. VERITAS will use a synthetic aperture radar to chart surface elevations and create 3D reconstructions of the topography, which will, in turn, provide information about plate tectonics and whether there are active volcanoes on Venus.
VERITAS will also be looking for emissions from the surface with an infrared mapping system in order to determine its rock type, which is currently unknown, and look for water vapor from active volcanoes releasing into the atmosphere.
Beyond the two primary missions, there will be other instruments onboard. VERITAS will have the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, which was built by JPL. This clock will generate an ultra-precise signal to benefit autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and allow enhanced radio observations in space.
DAVINCI+ will be carrying a Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS) that will take high-resolution samples of UV light using a new instrument that favors freeform optics. The device will catalog the nature of what exactly is absorbing up to half the incoming solar energy in Venus’ atmosphere.
While NASA’s JPL is the principal investigator of the mission and provides project management, the German Aerospace Center is actually the one who provided the infrared mapper for the craft, and the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales contributed the radar, among other things. This international group effort to explore such an inhabitable planet is an exciting prospect and continues to showcase how space exploration brings us together as a planet as we set our sights outwards to the stars.
The curiously thick atmosphere of Venus hides many secrets, but hopefully, these missions will bring into focus not only what’s lying underneath but also what happened in the planet’s past.
These missions represent an exciting return to Venus and hopefully serve to help us better understand our planetary neighbor.
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