On the morning of June 2, rumors began to swirl that NASA would announce its latest interplanetary missions decisions and select the long-awaited winners of the agency’s new spacecraft contest in its relatively inexpensive Discovery exploration program. Four competing teams were eagerly awaiting the results: One wanted to send a mission to Jupiter’s hypervolcanic moon Io. Another wanted a visit to Triton, a cryovolcanic moon of Neptune. And the other two wanted to go to Venus, a destination the space agency had neglected for decades.
A press conference began later that afternoon, chaired by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. After a long preamble with updates on the agency’s efforts to combat climate change, as well as its exploration plans for Mars and the Moon – and an unexpected cameo from William Shatner – Nelson’s remarks turned to the Discovery program. As he spoke, a skilfully produced video began playing on nearby screens, showing images of swirling sickly yellow clouds and a bleak volcanic landscape. The hellish prospect seemed refreshingly familiar to the Venusian contingent of planetary scientists who joined the conference call. Perhaps NASA has given the green light to one of the two Venus mission concepts. Then two acronyms flashed on the screen – “DAVINCI + and VERITAS” – followed by cheers from the audience in the auditorium and online.
For the first time in three decades, NASA had decided to return to Venus – not once, but twice. VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will orbit the planet and examine its surface and interior with radar and gravitational measurements. DAVINCI + (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus) will include an orbiter and a probe that will dive through the atmosphere to the planet’s mysterious, cloud-shrouded surface. If everything goes according to plan, both missions should start before this decade is up.
The last time NASA sent a special mission to Venus was in 1989 when their Magellan orbiter embarked on a five-year mission to compile a radar map of the planet. Since then, Earth’s sister world – which was almost identical in size, mass, and mass to our own planet – had been relegated to the shadows of American space exploration. For the Venusian scientific community, who had worked, fought and fought for the past quarter century to heighten the depressing reluctance of the planet, the ultimate victory was sheer catharsis.
In todays #StateOfNASA Address, we have announced two new ones @NASASolarSystem Missions to explore the planet Venus, which we haven’t visited in over 30 years! DAVINCI + analyzes the atmosphere of Venus and VERITAS maps the surface of Venus. pic.twitter.com/yC5Etbpgb8
– NASA (@NASA) June 2, 2021
“I’ve jumped up and down as often as I have in a few years,” says Martha Gilmore, a planetary geologist at Wesleyan University who is on both mission teams. “We are on the way Venus!“Enthuses Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and principal researcher at DAVINCI +.
“I don’t know what else we could have done better to make this mission the right one at the moment,” says Sue Smrekar, planetary geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal researcher at VERITAS. “I have a feeling we did that. And I have the feeling that NASA noticed that. “
Magellan was the very first mission Smrekar worked on while she was still a postdoctoral fellow. She wants VERITAS to be her last – and the culmination of her life in science. “It will be the keystone of my career,” she says. “I can’t wait to see what we discover.”
There is no shortage of diverse favorite puzzles that researchers want to solve about Venus, but each speaks for a single, common riddle: How could Earth and Venus, two planets that were formed simultaneously and from the same material, be so different? Fates? Why is one a temperate biological oasis while the other is hellish pandemonium?
“How do you build a habitable planet? That’s our main question, and we only have one answer right now: the earth, ”says Gilmore. “Now we have the chance that a second laboratory will understand this question.”
Equipped with a sophisticated radar system, VERITAS is practically the successor to Magellan, who is supposed to create extremely detailed topographical and geological maps of the planet and at the same time look deep into the bowels of the world with meticulous measurements of the gravitational field of Venus. The DAVINCI + orbiter is less powerful, but its probe will provide invaluable in-situ data on Venus’s atmosphere, taking samples and studying the chemistry of planetary air during a one-sided dive to the spacecraft’s devastating surface. Both missions will also include technology demonstrations to expand NASA’s interplanetary capabilities: VERITAS will fly with a space atomic clock for improved celestial navigation, and DAVINCI + will house a novel high-resolution ultraviolet imager.
Just one mission to Venus would bring innumerable revelations. The fact that two are visiting practically at the same time is particularly exciting. At the conference, Nelson referred to them as “sister missions” – a fitting description as the two examine two very different aspects of the world to address the same fundamental questions about the habitability of the planet. Like peanut butter and jelly, they complement each other perfectly.
“The combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky to the volcanoes on its surface to its core,” said Tom Wagner, a scientist with NASA’s Discovery Program, in a statement following the announcement. “It will be like we’ve rediscovered the planet.”
The fact that both missions were selected shows that NASA is not content with just glancing at the world, says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist and vocal Venus proponent at North Carolina State University. Instead, the space agency is pursuing a strategy designed to show exactly how the planet works, inside and out. And maybe these dual missions are just the beginning of something even bigger: the revolutionary data that both could receive could become the basis for a future Venus mission program, similar to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which changed our understanding of the red planet.
It is of course a disappointing day for the other two teams who were hoping for a coveted Discovery mission spot. The Io Volcano Observer team wanted to understand the immense gravitational forces responsible for sustaining the magmatic ocean of the eponymous Jupiter moon – and, consequently, how the same forces can keep potentially life-sustaining watery oceans on other worlds warm for billions of years, such as z as Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is Io’s neighbor. The team behind the Trident mission proposal wanted to find out how a surreal and completely alien form of icy volcanism could make Neptune’s moon Triton – an ancient relic from the beginnings of the solar system – look so unnaturally youthful over eons.
Volcanism is also the most likely culprit behind the long-ago transformation of Venus from a supposed ocean world into a hostile wasteland, a process that both VERITAS and DAVINCI + will investigate in their own way. No matter which mission of the four contenders was chosen, says Jacob Richardson, a planetary volcanologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, volcanoes will always win. But in this case, choosing Venus to understand how volcanoes can destroy entire planets seemed like a no-brainer.
For the vanquished, an inevitable melancholy is tinged with optimism. Proponents of an Io mission to hope that they will win the next Discovery competition – or maybe even in the next higher class: a competition for the more expensive and technically more powerful missions in NASA’s New Frontiers program. Those who wish for a return to the often forgotten worlds of Uranus and Neptune, who last saw a spaceship in the late 1980s, are eye a future “flagship” mission, one of the $ 1 billion giants that represent the pinnacle of NASA’s robotic space exploration fleet in terms of size, cost, and performance.
However, this decade now belongs to the second planet from the sun. Like their DAVINCI + colleagues, Smrekar and their VERITAS employees are equally enthusiastic, exhausted and incredulous. The night before the announcement, she’d snapped a picture of Venus, pointy and shiny in the dark sky above. After the announcement by NASA – in the light of a new day – this diamond spot suddenly looked very different. It was no longer an inaccessible island, but the target for NASA’s next big leap in interplanetary exploration.