Venus hides a wealth of information that can help us better understand Earth and the outer planets. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is working to design critical concepts that can withstand the planet’s extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. This image is a combination of data from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and the Pioneer Venus spacecraft.Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech
NASA has selected two new missions to Venus, the closest planetary neighbor to Earth. As part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions aim to understand how Venus became an infernal world, when it has many other characteristics similar to ours. In fact, it was probably the first habitable world in the solar system, with an ocean and climate similar to Earth.
These investigations are the final selections for four important concepts selected by NASA in February 2020 as part of the agency’s 2019 Discovery competition. After a competitive peer review process, the two missions were selected on the basis of their potential scientific value and feasibility of their development plans. The project teams will now finalize their requirements, designs, and development plans.
NASA provides nearly $500 million to develop each mission. Each is expected to be launched in the period 2028-2030.
The tasks selected are:
DAVINCI+ (Venus’ Deep Atmosphere Examination of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging)
DAVINCI+ will measure the composition of Venus’s atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as to determine if the planet has an ocean. The mission consists of a descending ball diving into the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’s atmosphere is such a runaway greenhouse compared to Earth’s.
In addition, DAVINCI+ will send the first high-resolution images of the unique geological features on Venus known as “tesserae”, which are comparable to Earth’s continents, indicating that Venus possesses plate tectonics. This will be the first US-led mission into the atmosphere of Venus since 1978, and the DAVINCI+ results could change our understanding of the formation of terrestrial planets in our solar system and beyond. James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard provides project management.
Veritas (emissivity, radiology, insar, topography and spectroscopicity of Venus)
Veritas will map the surface of Venus to assess the planet’s geological history and understand why it evolved differently from Earth. Orbiting Venus using synthetic aperture radar, Veritas will map the elevations of nearly the entire planet’s surface to create 3D reconstructions of the terrain and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus.
VERITAS will also map infrared emissions from the surface of Venus to map its rock type, which is largely unknown, and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. Susan Smirkar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California (JPL) is the principal investigator. JPL provides project management. The German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared cartographer with the Italian Space Agency and the French National Center for Space Studies contributing the radar and other parts of the mission.
“We are accelerating our planetary science program through extensive exploration of a world that NASA has not visited in more than 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate director of science. “Using cutting-edge technologies developed by NASA and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we are ushering in a new decade for Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet could become a greenhouse. Our goals are profound. It is not only about understanding the evolution and habitability of planets in our Solar System, Rather, it is about extending beyond these limits to exoplanets, and it is an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”
Zurbuchen added that he hopes for strong synergies between NASA’s science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope. It is expected that the data from these missions will be used by the most representative section of the scientific community.
“It’s surprising how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us a lot about the planet – from the clouds in its sky, through the volcanoes on its surface, to its core,” Tom Wagner said. Scientist in the NASA Discovery Program. “It would be as if we rediscovered the planet.”
In addition to the two missions, NASA has selected two technology shows for them to travel with. Veritas will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with funding from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The ultra-accurate clock signal generated with this technology will eventually help enable autonomous spacecraft to maneuver and enhance radio science observations.
DAVINCI+ will carry Goddard’s built-in UV-Visible Imaging Spectrophotometer (CUVIS) with it. CUVIS will perform high-precision UV measurements using a new shape-free optical instrument. These observations will be used to determine the nature of the unknown UV absorber in Venus’s atmosphere that absorbs up to half of the incoming solar energy.
Founded in 1992, NASA’s Discovery Program has supported the development and implementation of more than 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the 9th Discovery Program competition.
The concepts were selected from proposals submitted in 2019 under NASA’s Opportunity Announcement NNH19ZDA010O. Selected investigations will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the discovery program. The Discovery Program conducts space science research in the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The objectives of the program are to provide repeat opportunities for investigations led by principal investigators in planetary sciences that can be accomplished without exceeding the cost limit.
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