NASA Picks Not Just One, But Two Venus Missions as Next in the Discovery Series

NASA Picks Not Just One, But Two Venus Missions as Next in the Discovery Series

NASA will send not just one, but two spacecraft to study Venus as the next two missions in its Discovery series of mid-sized planetary exploration projects. DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will be the first U.S. spacecraft specifically designed to study Earth’s sister planet in more than 30 years.

Enshrouded in clouds of sulfuric acid with a surface environment often described as Hell, Venus nonetheless is so close in size and proximity to the Sun that it is called Earth’s sister. How it evolved so differently is a mystery scientists are eager to solve.

Many spacecraft have been sent to study Venus, but the last dedicated U.S. Venus probe, Magellan, finished its work almost 30 years ago.

The Venus science community has been trying for years to win approval for more missions, but with the entire solar system to explore and a finite budget, NASA has selected other targets for its Discovery program of competed, principal investigator (PI)-led missions that cost about $500 million each.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the selection of the two Venus missions at a “State of NASA'” briefing today at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC.

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus) will study the atmosphere of Venus. The spacecraft consists of an orbiter and a probe equipped with an array of instruments that will descend through the atmosphere, which is 90 times denser than Earth’s and traps heat, making the surface of Venus 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius).

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, inSAR Topography and Spectroscopy) is a cooperative project with the German, Italian and French space agencies.  An orbiter with a synthetic aperture radar, it will map the surface of Venus to create 3D reconstructions of topography and map infrared emissions to determine if active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere.

Artist’s concept of active volcanoes on Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Peter Rubin.

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS are two of four missions that competed in the current round of Discovery-class mission selections, the ninth in the series that began in 1992.  This was not their first time through the proposal process. The head of NASA’s science program Thomas Zurbuchen, commented today that the proposals benefitted from the experience and were much improved this time.

Jim Garvin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is DAVINCI+’s PI. Suzanne Smrekar of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the PI for VERITAS.

Each mission will also take along a technology demonstration adjunct.  NASA recently has been touting the value of including higher-risk technology demonstrations to advance the state-of-the-art. The most recent example is the Ingenuity helicopter that arrived on Mars as part of the Mars Perseverance mission.

VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, an ultra-precise clock signal that will ultimately enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations. DAVINCI+ will host the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS) to make high resolution measurements of ultraviolet light using a new instrument based on freeform optics.

The costs for the technology demonstrations are in addition to the $500 million per mission.  NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will pay for the atomic clock. The Science Mission Directorate will fund CUVIS.

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will launch in the 2028-2030 time frame.

The two missions that were not successful this time are the Io Volcano Observer to study Jupiter’s moon Io, and TRIDENT to explore Neptune’s icy moon Triton.

Zurbuchen stressed that the decision was based on the science that will result. All of the proposed missions were “eminently selectable,” but DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were chosen because they will provide the best science return. They are quite different from each other even though both will study the same planet.

Quite a few probes have swung by Venus and collected data while enroute to other destinations, but a more limited number have been dedicated specifically to studying the planet.  The Soviet Union sent several Venera probes that landed on the surface providing images and data that remain unparalleled today. U.S. probes have focused primarily on radar mapping of the surface from orbit and atmospheric studies. Europe’s Venus Express and Japan’s Akatsuki also studied the atmosphere.

Despite the number of probes that visited Venus already, Tom Wagner, NASA Discovery Program Scientist, said in a statement today that it is “astounding how little we know about Venus.” 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. … It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

Lockheed Martin will build both spacecraft.

Artists’ renderings show the VERITAS spacecraft (left) and DAVINCI+ probe (right) as they arrive at Venus. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

NASA will hold a “Science Live” event tomorrow afternoon (June 3) to talk more about the missions.

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