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NASA Will Send Two Missions To Venus, With Help From Colorado Scientists

Venus has thick clouds that obscure our view of the surface.
Venus has thick clouds that obscure our view of the surface.

NASA is planning two missions to Venus in order to study how the planet became Earth’s “evil twin.” Colorado scientists are involved in each stage of the projects, which will launch at the end of the decade.

Within our solar system, Venus is the closest in size to Earth. It’s also about the same distance from the Sun — which is why some scientists call it our sister planet. However, that may not be a fair comparison considering the big difference in conditions on the surface.

“Venus is really a version of hell,” said Larry Esposito, with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Anything that tries to land on Venus would be immediately destroyed by the heavy, toxic atmosphere.

“The temperature is hot enough to melt lead. The atmosphere has a pressure 100 times that of here on the Earth,” he said. “It’s completely unbreathable — no oxygen, full of sulfurous gases and sulfuric acid.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since NASA last sent a mission to study Venus. Since then, the space agency has explored Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and even Pluto. But Esposito said going back to Venus can help resolve some important questions.

“It’s a place that started out like the Earth,” he said. “The question then is: how did it diverge? How did Venus become such a terrible place, such an evil place, while the Earth is an abode where people and all sorts of life, organisms, can live quite well?”

Those are some of the questions that two NASA missions, called VERITAS and DAVINCI, will try to answer.

VERITAS will orbit Venus, mapping the surface in great detail. It’s looking for active plate tectonics and volcanoes on the planet. That’s not an easy task because it must first peer through thick clouds.

DAVINCI will send a probe down into the atmosphere of Venus. It will measure the amounts of each gas, which can tell scientists about the history of the planet. The spacecraft might also determine if Venus ever had an ocean.

Artist renditions of VERITAS (left) and DAVINCI (right). VERITAS will orbit Venus, while DAVINCI will send a probe down toward the surface.
Lockheed Martin
Artist renditions of VERITAS (left) and DAVINCI (right). VERITAS will orbit Venus, while DAVINCI will send a probe down toward the surface.

But first, the missions have to actually get to Venus. That’s where Lockheed Martin and program manager Tim Linn enter the picture.

“We’re going to be supporting both of those missions by helping with the mission design, building the spacecraft, integrating the payloads, getting both of the spacecraft launched, and then doing the mission operations here in Littleton, Colorado,” he said.

Linn said each mission poses its own challenges for the team. VERITAS needs to slow down and get into orbit, while DAVINCI needs to withstand intense heat as it descends toward the surface of the planet.

“We think we have, really, two low-risk programs at the end of the day because of a lot of the heritage that can draw from prior missions that we’ve built,” he said.

The missions won’t launch until 2028 and 2030. But the data they’ll provide has a wide range of applications.

Constantine Tsang, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder and a co-investigator on the VERITAS mission, said Venus might help researchers understand climate change on Earth.

“When you look at the atmosphere of Venus, it’s this very rich, dense carbon dioxide atmosphere that drives this massive greenhouse effect,” he said. “That has analogies for the future of the Earth. We’re seeing, potentially, an end state of Earth in studying Venus.”

The possible scientific findings don’t stop there. They go beyond Earth, and even beyond the solar system to exoplanets. Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets, or planets around other stars, in the past 25 years.

“A lot of them are very close to their parent sun, very much like Venus is,” said Tsang. “So, the question is: When we see a ‘Venus’ around another star system, are they like Venus, or are they more like Earth?”

CU Boulder and LASP researcher Kevin McGouldrick studies the clouds on Venus. He said these very questions will be important as scientists search for habitable planets or signs of alien life.

“If we were an extraterrestrial alien scientist studying our solar system, with the capabilities that we humans have today, we’d look at our solar system, and we’d likely conclude that there are two Earth-like, habitable planets in the solar system,” said McGouldrick. “We’d be really hard-pressed to tell the difference between Earth and Venus.”

Although he’s not directly involved, he said the data the missions collect will be useful for everyone studying Venus.

“They represent what I hope is just kind of the beginnings of what would be a concerted effort to really fully understand Venus, which is the most Earth-like planet that we know of anywhere, other than the Earth,” said McGouldrick.

I am the 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow at KUNC. My goal is to tell the true stories of science — and make them understandable and fascinating for all.
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