NASA’s going back to Venus

NASA is on a mission (two missions, actually) to discover what turned Earth’s “sister planet”, Venus, into the hellish inferno it is today.

The second planet from the Sun is a similar size to Earth and might have been the first habitable planet in our solar system. It may even have had an ocean.

Now, though, it is cloaked in toxic gases and has a surface temperature of about 465°C.

To find out what went so terribly wrong, NASA has announced it will send two missions to Venus within the next decade.

Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen says NASA’s goals are “profound”.

“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” he says.

“Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse.

“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.”

The first mission, DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging), will drop a spherical probe through the planet’s dense atmosphere to study the molecules in each layer.

The atmospheric gases – including krypton, argon, neon and xenon – will help researchers understand the planet’s history. Other instruments will take high-resolution images of Venus’ topography. Venus has tesserae, which NASA says may be comparable to Earth’s continents and might therefore suggest it has plate tectonics. It will use the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer to measure ultraviolet light and provide more information about the atmosphere.

DAVINCI+ also aims to work out whether there really was an ocean on Venus, as previous computer modelling suggests.

The second mission, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy), will map the planet’s surface and use 3D reconstructions to work out whether there is tectonic and volcanic activity. VERITAS will also take the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 to generate precise signals to help autonomous craft with space navigation and better radio science observations.

NASA Discovery Program Scientist Tom Wagner says the US$1billion 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,” he says.

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