It’s honestly a little hard to understand why NASA hasn’t been more realistic about going to return to Venus in such a long time. It is true that Venus has always been a tough bet to explore because of its hostile environment. The surface boasts temperatures up to 471 ° C (hot enough to melt lead) and ambient pressures 89 times those of Earth. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. And the planet is covered in thick clouds of sulfuric acid. When the Soviet Union landed the Venus 13 spacecraft on the planet in 1982, it took 127 minutes before it was destroyed.
However, we know that the conditions were not always so harsh! Venus and Earth are known to have started as similar worlds with similar masses, and both reside in the habitable zone of the sun (the region where it is possible that liquid water exists on the planet’s surface). But only the Earth has become habitable, while Venus has become an infernal landscape. Scientists want to know why. These new missions, says Byrne, “will help us fundamentally answer the question why our brother planet is not our twin?”
Just last year, another huge development encouraged NASA to take Venus exploration more seriously: the prospect of finding life. In September 2020, scientists announced that they had potentially discovered phosphine gas – which is known to be produced by biological life – in the atmosphere of Venus. These findings were under enormous scrutiny in the following months, and it is now unclear whether the phosphine readings were true. But all the excitement spurred the discussion to the effect that finding extraterrestrial life was perhaps possible on Venus. This tantalizing new perspective has put Venus at the forefront in the minds of the public (and perhaps in the minds of lawmakers approving NASA’s budget).
The selection of the two new missions is a very clear statement from NASA to the Venus community to say, “We see you, we know you’ve been neglected, and we’ll do well,” says Stephen Kane, an astronomer at the University of Venus. California, Riverside. “It’s an incredible moment.”
DAVINCI + is the abbreviation for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus. It is a spaceship that will dive into the dense and warm atmosphere of Venus and parachute to the surface. In his 63-minute descent, he will use multiple spectrometers to study the chemistry and composition of the atmosphere. He will also imagine the Venusian landscape to better understand its crust and terrain (and if successful, it would be the first probe to photograph the planet during the descent).
VERITAS, short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, is an orbiter designed to do other research from a safer distance. He would use radar and spectroscopy near infrared to look under the thick clouds of the planet and observe the geology and topography of its surface.