NASA is sending two spacecraft to investigate the mysteries of Venus


This is a computer-simulated global view of the northern hemisphere of Venus based on data from missions to the planet.


NASA/JPL

Venus may finally get some long overdue attention from NASA. The second planet from the sun has been called Earth’s twin, though the rocky world developed very differently from our lush, watery, life-filled planet. On Wednesday, NASA announced it’s selected two new official missions, Veritas and Davinci+, to go to Venus as part of the agency’s Discovery Program. 

Each mission will receive $500 million for development, with an expected launch time frame of 2028 to 2030. NASA administrator Bill Nelson shared the selection during his State of NASA address on Wednesday.

Mars may be the star of NASA’s planetary exploration efforts these days, but blazing-hot Venus has been beckoning scientists, especially after a 2020 study examined the possible presence of phosphine, a gas that is sometimes produced by microbes, in the planet’s clouds.

The Veritas (for “Venus emissivity, radio science, InSAR, topography and spectroscopy”) mission is designed to map the surface of Venus in search of answers to how it and Earth diverged so radically. It will look to see if volcanoes and other geologic processes are still active. 

Davinci+ (deep atmosphere Venus investigation of noble gases, chemistry, and imaging) will focus on the atmosphere of Venus and look into whether the planet once had oceans. “DAVINCI+ plunges through Venus’ inhospitable atmosphere to precisely measure its composition down to the surface,” said NASA about the proposal.

NASA’s Discovery Program, which kicked off in 1992, is focused on smaller planetary science missions that fill in gaps in NASA’s current lineup of missions like the Perseverance rover on Mars and the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter.

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

Discovery has already built quite a legacy, including the still-active Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the InSight lander on Mars. The upcoming Psyche mission to visit a nickel-iron asteroid is another program participant.

A NASA announcement day like this can be stressful for scientists who have dedicated years to developing mission concepts. There were four missions in the running that had all been selected for further study in early 2020. Each idea received $3 million and nine months to develop the concept.

While Davinci+ and Veritas have gotten the go-ahead, that means two other missions will be left out. Io Volcano Observer (IVO) had its sights set on Jupiter’s moon Io to answer questions about the volcanically active world. Trident proposed sending a spacecraft to fly by Neptune’s icy moon Triton to look into how habitable worlds may develop.   

Various NASA spacecraft have done flybys of Venus in more recent years, but the agency hasn’t launched a dedicated Venus mission since Magellan, which reached the planet in 1990 to map the surface. Magellan lost contact in 1994.

The future missions have the potential to break open some of the mysteries of Venus, including the question of whether it might host some form of microbial life. Venus might look like an inhospitable hell-planet, but there’s so much we don’t know about it… yet.

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