NASA is sending missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years, breathing new life into the scientific quest to understand the often-ignored planet.
Why it matters: Understanding Venus is considered key to learning more about how habitable worlds form in our own solar system – and beyond.
- For years, researchers focused on Venus have been forced to settle for incomplete data collected by spacecraft sent there decades ago.
- “I know there are a lot of people who would like to do research on Venus, but the resources weren’t there. The missions bring resources and more interest,” said David Greenspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute working on one of the missions selected by NASA, they told me. “We expect an influx of young researchers.”
Catch up quickly: NASA announced last week that it would send two new missions – DAVINCI + and VERITAS – to Venus, marking for the first time the space agency to send special missions to the world in more than 30 years.
- DAVINCI + will send a probe through the atmosphere of Venus to collect data on how the planet has become a cloud world.
- VERITAS plans to map the planet’s surface using radar to see if Venus still has active plate tectonics and volcanic activity.
- Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.
The big questions: Scientists believe that Venus may have evolved in one of two ways. One theory is that the world once had a magmatic ocean that effectively destroyed it from the beginning, creating the dense atmosphere that surrounds the planet today.
- The other theory is that Venus was habitable, with water on its surface, before extreme volcanic eruptions created the escaped greenhouse effect seen there today.
- DAVINCI + and VERITAS must be able to collect data to help understand exactly which model is correct.
- But even these two missions, while exciting, will not be able to answer all the questions researchers have about the history of Venus, Venus researcher Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University told me.
- “This will allow us to ask questions we didn’t think of because we’ll find things we never imagined, and it will essentially help us re-enter Venus,” Byrne added.
The intrigue: Last year, scientists announced the possible discovery of phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus, a sign that life may exist in the planet’s temperate clouds.
- Although it is not clear whether NASA chose these missions directly because of the discovery of phosphine, both missions will be able to smell the stinking gas in the Venusian atmosphere, if there.
- “It’s definitely good for the phosphine issue because it will definitely be able to tell us if there is phosphine or not,” said Clara Souza-Silva, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics who co-authored the phosphine study.
- However, Sousa-Silva and other scientists will continue to search for phosphine using other methods before the new missions.
The big picture: DAVINCI + and VERITAS are not the only missions focused on Venus. Japan’s Akatsuki is already exploring the world from orbit, while Russia and India are planning missions to the planet.
Yes, but: While the community of Venus is rejoicing, some other communities of scientists are postponing their own dreams.
- The Venus missions defeated two others for places on NASA’s list.
- A mission under development – to the moon of Neptune Triton – would be the first dedicated mission to the system ever. The other would send a probe to study Jupiter’s volcanic moon, Io.