Three decades after NASA’s Magellan mission came to an end, the U.S. space agency is returning to cloud-shrouded Venus with two cost-capped Discovery-class missions, one to map the world with a cloud-penetrating radar and another that will plunge into the atmosphere for a dramatic hourlong descent to study its chemical composition.
The missions will be funded at $500 million each and both are expected to launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe.
“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s director of space science. “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 orbiter, known as VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy), will map the surface to determine its geologic history, following up and expanding on Magellan’s radar observations.
Using a cloud-penetrating synthetic aperture radar to chart surface elevations, the probe will allow researchers to create a 3D view of Venus’ topography in a bid to determine if plate tectonics is at work and if volcanism is still active.
VERITAS also will map infrared emissions to chart the distribution of rock types across the planet and to find out if volcanoes are pumping water vapour into the atmosphere.
“Venus is like this cosmic gift of an accident,” said Suzanne Smrekar, the VERITAS principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You have these two planetary bodies – Earth and Venus – that started out nearly the same but have gone down two completely different evolutionary paths, but we don’t know why.”
Managed at JPL, the orbiter’s infrared mapper will be provided by the German Aerospace Center while the radar and other components will be provided by the Italian Space Agency and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in France.
The second Venus mission, known as DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) is a descent craft that will plunge into the planet’s thick atmosphere with a sophisticated suite of instruments to better understand how the planet evolved and if it ever hosted an ocean.
Descending under a parachute, DAVINCI+ will return the first high-resolution images of continent-size features known as “tessarae,” possibly helping confirm whether plate tectonics is, or ever has been, at work on Venus. The descent is expected to last about 63 minutes, promising an hour of high drama at the end of a years=long mission.
The DAVINCI+ mission will be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
“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,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery program scientist. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”