Wednesday, July 28, 2021

NASA is ending its 30-year Venus drought with two new missions

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It’s honestly a bit hard to understand why NASA hasn’t been more optimistic about returning to Venus in so long. It is true that Venus has always been difficult to explore due to its harsh environment. The surface has temperatures of up to 471 ° C (hot enough to melt lead) and environmental pressures 89 times higher than on Earth. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. And the planet is covered in thick clouds of sulfuric acid. When the Soviet Union landed the Venera 13 probe on the planet in 1982, it only lasted 127 minutes before being destroyed.

And yet we know that conditions there were not always so harsh. Venus and Earth are known to have started out as similar worlds with similar masses, and both reside in the habitable zone of the sun (the region where liquid water may exist on the surface of a planet). But only Earth became habitable, while Venus became a hell. Scientists want to know why. These new missions “will fundamentally help us answer the question, why isn’t our sister planet our twin?” Byrne says.

In the last year alone, another major development has encouraged NASA to take the exploration of Venus more seriously: the prospect of finding life. In September 2020, scientists announced that they had potentially discovered phosphine gas, known to be produced by biological life, in the atmosphere of Venus. Those findings came under enormous scrutiny in the months that followed, and now it’s not entirely clear whether the phosphine readings were real. But all the excitement fueled discussion that perhaps it was possible to find extraterrestrial life on Venus. This tantalizing new prospect put Venus at the forefront of the minds of the public (and possibly the legislators who pass NASA’s budget).

The selection of both new missions “is a very clear statement from NASA to the Venus community to say: ‘We see you, we know you have been neglected and we are going to fix it,'” says Stephen Kane, an astronomer at the University of California. , Riverside. “This is an incredible moment.”

DAVINCI + is short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging Plus. It is a spacecraft that will plunge into the hot, dense atmosphere of Venus and parachute to the surface. On its 63-minute descent, it will use multiple spectrometers to study the chemistry and composition of the atmosphere. It will also image the landscape of Venus to better understand its crust and terrain (and if successful, it would be the first probe to photograph the planet during descent).

VERITAS, short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy, is an orbiter designed to carry out other investigations from a safer distance. It would use radar and near-infrared spectroscopy to look below the planet’s dense clouds and observe the geology and topography of its surface.

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