Honestly, it’s a little hard to understand why NASA couldn’t be more optimistic about returning to Venus in such a long time. It is true that Venus has always been difficult to explore due to its hostile environment. The surface features temperatures of 471 degrees Celsius (hot enough to melt lead) and ambient pressures 89 times greater than those on Earth. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. The planet is covered in thick clouds of sulfuric acid. When the Soviet Union landed the Venera 13 probe on the planet in 1982, it lasted only 127 minutes before it was destroyed.
However, we know the conditions there weren’t always so harsh! Venus and Earth are known to have looked like two similar worlds with similar masses, both residing in the Sun’s habitable zone (the area where liquid water can be found on the planet’s surface). But only Earth became habitable, while Venus turned into an inferno. Scientists want to know why. These new missions “will essentially help us answer the question, Why is our sister planet not our twin?” Byrne says.
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 might have detected phosphine – known to be the product of biological life – in Venus’s atmosphere. These results came under intense scrutiny in the following months, and now it’s not entirely clear if the phosphine readings are real. But all the excitement has fueled the debate about the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life on Venus. This puzzling new possibility has put Venus in the forefront of the public’s mind (and possibly the minds of lawmakers who approved NASA’s budget).
The choice of both 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’re going to correct that,'” says Stephen Keene, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an incredible moment. .”
DAVINCI+ is an acronym for Venus’ Deep Atmospheric Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Additional Imaging. It’s a spacecraft that will plunge into the hot and dense atmosphere of Venus and parachute down to the surface. Upon its 63-minute landing, it will use multiple spectrometers to study the chemistry and composition of the atmosphere. It will also photograph the landscape of Venus to better understand its crust and terrain (and if successful, it will be the first probe to photograph the planet during its descent).
VERITAS, short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy, is an orbital vehicle designed to conduct further research from a safer distance. It will use radar and near-infrared spectroscopy to look under the planet’s dense clouds and observe the geology and topography of its surface.