NASA: Administrator Bill Nelson revealed on Wednesday that the agency has chosen two new robotic missions to study the torrid hell-world of Venus, Earth’s neighbor, and the second planet from the Sun. DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were two of four competing missions in the most recent cycle of NASA’s Discovery Program, which oversees smaller planetary exploration projects with a budget of around $500 million apiece.
“Both of these sibling projects attempt to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” Nelson said during his first “State of NASA” address on Wednesday at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. “They will provide an opportunity for the entire scientific community to explore a planet we haven’t visited in more than 30 years.”
DAVINCI+, which is expected to launch in 2029, will be the first US-led expedition inside Venus’s atmosphere since NASA’s second Pioneer mission dived into Venus’s clouds for scientific investigation in 1978. The spacecraft will fly past Venus twice, taking close-up images of its surface before launching a robotic probe into its thick atmosphere to measure the planet’s gasses and other constituents.
During NASA’s review of the four missions last year, a separate international team of researchers published findings that the noxious gas phosphine was possibly floating in Venus’ clouds — an intriguing theory that hinted at the first signs of extraterrestrial life, as phosphine is known to be made primarily by living organisms. Other researchers, however, disagreed with the team’s findings, leaving the phosphine theory unsolved. The DAVINCI+ spacecraft’s entry into Venus’ atmosphere could provide a definitive answer to that question.
When the study was published, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s former administrator, remarked, “It’s time to prioritize Venus.” Although the two probes could assist corroborate the phosphine studies, NASA’s science associate administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen, tells The Verge that they were chosen for their scientific merit, proposed timeframe, and other considerations unrelated to the phosphine results.
The second mission, VERITAS, is a probe that will launch just before DAVINCI+ in 2028. It will orbit Venus and study its surface in the same way as NASA’s Magellan probe did for four years starting in 1990, but with a far tighter focus that will allow scientists to learn more about the planet’s geological past. NASA stated in a statement that it will use a synthetic aperture radar and track surface elevations to “create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still occurring on Venus.”
Another camera aboard VERITAS will be sensitive to a wavelength that could detect evidence of water vapor in Venus’ atmosphere, which, if found, could indicate that active volcanoes on the planet’s surface have been degassing for a long time.
Taken together, the two missions show that NASA is now committing to Venus, a fiery planet that has long been overshadowed by more scientifically popular planets like Mars. TRIDENT, which would have examined Neptune’s icy moon Triton, and the Io Volcano Observer (IVO), which would have examined the tidal forces on Jupiter’s moon Io, were the two Discovery-class missions that competed with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS.
The twin Venus missions are attempting to address the idea that Venus was once livable. “Venus is closer to the Sun now, it’s a hothouse, but it could’ve been different once upon a time,” NASA’s Discovery program head Thomas Wagner tells The Verge. Scientists may be able to learn more about how Venus’ atmosphere evolved through time to allow it to become the hell world it is today, with surface temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit, by studying it up close.
The missions may also aid scientists in learning how to observe exoplanets, or planets orbiting other solar systems. Though hot and uninhabitable, Venus is located in our solar system’s Goldilocks zone, a word scientists use to describe the location of exoplanets whose distances from the Sun are just suitable for life to thrive. According to Wagner, Venus could serve as a model for understanding exoplanets further away by being so close to Earth. The planet’s separation from the Sun also raises intriguing concerns about how Venus became the hell-world it is today.
“We want to know what happened on Venus since it’s in the goldilocks zone,” Wagner explains.