NASA is returning to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years, as the space agency unveiled two new $500 million missions on Wednesday that are expected to launch within the next 10 years.
As part of its State of the Agency address, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, would head to the planet known as ‘Earth’s evil twin’ as part of its Discovery program.
‘The missions aim to understand 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,’ NASA said in a release.
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NASA is returning to Venus for the first time in nearly 30 years, launching two $500 million missions
The missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, will analyze the planet’s atmosphere and surface. Venus has been compared to ‘Earth’s evil twin’ for its extreme surface temperature
DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) will measure Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved and determine whether it ever had an ocean.
It will also look for noble gases — such as helium, neon, argon and krypton — in its atmosphere and find out why it is a ‘runaway hothouse,’ when compared to Earth.
In 2020, scientists caused a stir when they said that trace amounts of phosphine gas, a colorless gas that is naturally produced mainly by certain microorganisms in the absence of oxygen, were discovered.
Those hopes may have been dashed however, when a separate study said that it wasn’t phosphine that was detected, but ‘ordinary’ sulfur dioxide.
The instruments that measure the noble gases could also determine whether phosphine indeed exists, the New York Times reported.
DAVINCI+ will also send back the first high-resolution images of Venus’ ‘tesserae,’ which may be comparable to Earth’s continents.
‘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,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in the statement.
Zurbuchen continued: ‘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.’
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the missions were a long time coming and would use ‘cutting-edge technologies’ NASA had created over the years
NASA has send two missions to Venus in recent memory: the Pioneer-Venus project in 1978 and Magellan.
Magellan, which returned to the planet in August 1990, spent more than four years observing Venus until radio contact was lost on October 12, 1994.
Subsequent NASA missions have flown by Venus, including the Parker Solar Probe, which detected a radio signal from the planet’s atmosphere last month, CNN reported.
Japan’s Akatsuki is the only spacecraft currently orbiting the planet.
The other mission, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will map the surface of Venus and look at its geologic history in an effort to find out why it developed so much differently than Earth.
It will use a synthetic aperture radar and ‘chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create 3D reconstructions of topography’ to see whether plate tectonics and volcanic activity are still happening on the planet, NASA added.
Venus’ surface temperature is 864 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to roughly 57 degrees for Earth
‘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,’ Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist added. ‘It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.’
In 2019, researchers said Venus may have had stable temperatures in its past and could have had ‘liquid water’ for 2 to 3 billion years.
Approximately 700 million years ago, it underwent a ‘dramatic transformation’ –possibly due to volcanic eruptions — that completely altered the planet.
Venus presently has a surface temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit.
CARBON DIOXIDE AND SULPHURIC ACID DROPLETS FEATURE IN THE ATMOSPHERE OF VENUS
Venus’s atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulphuric acid droplets.
The thick atmosphere traps the sun’s heat, resulting in surface temperatures higher than 470°C (880°F).
The atmosphere has many layers with different temperatures.
At the level where the clouds are, about 30 miles (50 km) up from the surface, it’s about the same temperature as on the surface of the Earth.
As Venus moves forward in its solar orbit while slowly rotating backwards on its axis, the top level of clouds zips around the planet every four Earth days.
They are driven by hurricane-force winds travelling at about 224 miles (360 km) per hour.
Atmospheric lightning bursts light up these quick-moving clouds.
Speeds within the clouds decrease with cloud height, and at the surface are estimated to be just a few miles (km) per hour.
On the ground, it would look like a very hazy, overcast day on Earth and the atmosphere is so heavy it would feel like you were one mile (1.6km) deep underwater.