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NASA is launching two new missions to a ‘lost habitable world’

Published Jun 4th, 2021 12:11PM EDT
venus missions
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory/Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

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NASA and other space agencies around the world have been focusing a lot of their attention on Mars as of late. It makes sense, since Mars is the planet most like Earth, and it’s the one planet that, as far as we know, had the best chance of hosting life at some point in its past. Venus, which today is a toxic hellscape with temperatures pushing 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and a thick atmosphere that would choke us out in a heartbeat, is a rocky world like Earth and Mars, but it’s most certainly not compatible with life as we know it. Where did it all go wrong? That’s what NASA wants to find out.

In a new announcement, NASA reveals that it has selected two new missions that will head to Venus to study its atmosphere and geology. The missions — called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS — aim to answer some of the biggest questions about Earth’s other neighbor and perhaps even shed some light on how Earth was lucky enough to be compatible with life.

The two missions are similar in that they’ll both feature orbiters packed with advanced equipment and instruments. However, they’ll be studying vastly different aspects of the planet while helping scientists understand how the Venus we see today came to be.

DAVINCI+ — short for Deep Atmospheric Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging — will study the planet’s atmosphere, which is one of the primary reasons that conditions on its surface are so intense. Mostly made up of carbon dioxide, the atmosphere could offer clues as to what the planet was like in the distant past. The mission will also seek to reveal whether or not Venus ever had an ocean.

VERITAS — Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy — will scan the surface of the planet and produce maps and 3D models of the rocky world beneath the thick clouds. The orbiter will be equipped with instruments capable of determining what type of rock covers the planet’s surface and investigate what geological processes are still happening, including active volcanoes and plate tectonics.

“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “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. 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.”

The missions don’t have firm launch dates yet but are expected to be blasted skyward sometime between 2028 and 2030.