We'll admit it — we've been a little one-sided when it comes to our planetary neighbors. Mars is well-studied by the space agencies of the world, with rovers crawling all over its surface and orbiters circling it from above. But Venus? Well, NASA hasn't even been there in 30 years.
That's all set to change as the "inferno-like" planet gets a chance to shine. NASA has announced two missions to Venus as part of its Discovery Program: Davinci+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and Veritas (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy).
The agency's last mission to Venus was Magellan, where an orbiter mapped the planet's surface with radar from 1989 to 1994. Since then, NASA's attention has largely turned to the search for life on Mars. But last year, researchers discovered a potential sign of life — the element phosphine — on Venus (or more precisely, in Venus' thick, sulfuric atmosphere, which is acidic enough to dissolve a human body in minutes).
That's something Davinci+ will investigate further, analyzing the chemical composition of Venus' atmosphere to determine just how a planet so similar to Earth could turn into a veritable hellscape, with an average surface temperature of 880 degrees Fahrenheit. Davinci+ will also take high-resolution images of Venus' surface to study its geological features, which are remarkably similar to ones on Earth (some scientists even regard Venus as Earth's twin — an "evil" one).
Veritas, on the other hand, will map Venus' surface to create 3D reconstructions of its topography, while simultaneously searching for infrared emissions that might indicate active volcanoes on the planet.
"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, said in a statement. "It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet."
Davinci+ and Veritas are expected to launch sometime between 2028 and 2030, and they'll hopefully inspire more Venusian exploration — and other planetary studies, too.
"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," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science. "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."
Stefanie Waldek is a freelance space, travel, and design journalist who is equally terrified of and fascinated by Venus. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @stefaniewaldek.
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