NASA doubles down on Venus missions, asking what made the planet uninhabitable

VERITAS and DAVINCI+ chosen and funded as part of agency's concept selection


NASA announced yesterday that it will fund two new missions to Venus to study its atmosphere and topography, both chosen from the Discovery Program.

The two missions will seek to understand how Venus made the transition from a theoretically Earth-like climate to becoming the solar system’s hottest planet. Venus is often referred to as Earth's "sister planet" and shares a similar size, mass, position, and composition. It may provide hints toward Earth's far distant future.

The missions are the land-bound Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI+) and the orbiting Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS). Both were given a $500m budget and are slated for launch between 2028 and 2030.

DAVINCI+ will send a probe to determine the composition of Venus' atmosphere and whether it ever had an ocean, measuring noble gasses and taking pictures of the planet's surface on the way down. Beyond volcanos and clues of weathering history, the surface of Venus is covered in plate tectonic-like tesserae that DAVINCI+ plans to capture. It is yet to be determined whether Venus actually has plate tectonics, but the VERITAS project hopes to confirm this.

DAVINCI+'s principal investigator, James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center, and the team hope the mission will reveal details about terrestrial planet formation.

In a tweet, Goddard said it would be the first NASA mission to Venus since 1978:

VERITAS will create a high-resolution map of Venus’ surface and infrared emissions by orbiting it with a synthetic aperture radar, in part to confirm whether plate tectonics and volcanos are still active. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the principal investigator leading the team which hopes the mission will shed light on Venus’ rock type, geologic history and answer why it developed so differently than Earth.

The German Aerospace Center, the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales will be collaborating on VERITAS by chipping in their own tech. The Germans and Italians are providing the infrared mapper and the French are providing the radar and other bits.

NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen said:

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.

A pair of technology demonstrations will accompany the missions. Ultra-precise clock Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, will fly with VERITAS in the hopes of one day enabling autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhancing radio science observations.

DAVINCI+ will chaperone the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS), which will make high-res measurements of UV light with freeform optics tech, so scientists can one day determine what is absorbing half of the solar energy in Venus’ atmosphere.

NASA’s Discovery Programs are in their ninth round. Both DAVINCI+’s predecessor and VERITAS were shortlisted – but not chosen – in 2015.

NASA said:

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 finalize their requirements, designs, and development plans.

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