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After decades away, NASA heading back to Venus with 2 new missions to probe ‘lost habitable’ world

By Benjamin Bullard
Impact Craters on Venus imaged by NASA Magellan

For a planet that’s so comparatively close to Earth, Venus is a very different kind of place. Extreme surface temperatures and tremendous pressure have made all of humanity’s attempts to land there short-lived affairs, and NASA has never even tried. The U.S., in fact, hasn’t sponsored an orbital mission to Venus since the successful Magellan mapping mission in the early 1990s.

But NASA revealed today that it’s heading back in a big way to study the terrestrial planet whose early evolutionary fate diverged so dramatically from Earth’s. The agency announced two separate but related new missions to Venus, with a launch timeframe of 2028-2030 — more than 30 years after Magellan’s four-year excursion ended in 1994.

Named DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, the two missions were selected from among four proposals that NASA fielded in 2019 as part of its Discovery Program, an ongoing initiative aimed at cultivating the next generation of solar system planetary research. Unlike Magellan, which stayed safely in orbit, both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will reach the atmosphere, which NASA speculates may once have been very different — and perhaps more hospitable to life — than it is now. One mission will be focused on refining our understanding of Venus’ atmosphere itself; the other on finally uncovering the secrets of its landforms, geology, and tectonic history.

Though Venus is a hellish place now, NASA is interested in knowing if it was always that way. Among the missions’ overarching goals is a better understanding of how Venus “became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours — and may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate,” the agency said in its announcement.

DAVINCI+ is an acronym for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, and it will “measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as determine whether the planet ever had an ocean,” says NASA. DAVINCI+ will deploy a sphere that descends through the Venusian atmosphere’s many layers, “making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared [to] Earth’s.” Onboard will be an ultraviolet-sensing spectrometer called CUVIS (Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer), which will determine what it is about Venus’ atmosphere that absorbs so much of the Sun’s energy.

DAVINCI+ also has an interesting geological component: learning more about Venus’ unique landforms, and the possible tectonic activity behind them. The mission will “return the first high resolution pictures of the unique geological features on Venus known as ‘tesserae,’ which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, suggesting that Venus has plate tectonics,” according to NASA.

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will also focus on geology and terrain, mapping the surface “to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth.” The mission will return mapping and imaging data that will be used “to create 3D reconstructions of topography” covering most of the planet, while aiming to learn whether Venus still has active geological processes like plate tectonics and volcanic activity. Infrared mapping of the surface also is expected to reveal the secrets of Venus’ rock composition, “which is largely unknown,” says NASA, while scanning for signs of atmospheric water vapor released by active volcanoes — if there are any.

“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, in today’s announcement. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

NASA expects the data returned by these two new missions to dovetail with other new initiatives, including the James Webb Space Telescope, in broadening humanity’s understanding of the solar system and its planetary history. Both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were announced with initial funding of approximately $500 million apiece, and development on each will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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