Caramel Clouds of Venus have fascinated humans for millennia, reflecting sunlight to shine at dusk like the morning or evening star. In 2030, NASA will analyze these clouds like never before.
The DAVINCI+ mission will perform two flybys of brother Earth to nestle in the right position to drop a camera-carrying probe to its Texas-sized land formations through the cloud layers of Venus on a third pass. The space agency hopes to open a new chapter in Venus exploration, adding pieces to the puzzle of whether Earth and Venus were once more alike than they are now. In the process, it could reveal whether life may have once – or continues to survive – in this cauldron environment.
Here is the background – Humanity’s first interplanetary destination was Venus, which NASA first successfully surveyed in 1962 via its Mariner 2 spacecraft.
Venus has been a frequent first stop for probes exploring the rest of the solar system since 1973. While missions to Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun use the planet to correct their course via gravity aids, they often have did quick scans of their swing dance partner Venus.
But it is difficult to focus narrowly on this planet. Venus has too much of almost anything perilous, with a runaway greenhouse effect, acid droplets in its skies, temperatures about twice as hot as a home oven, and atmospheric pressure about 90 times higher than at the surface of the earth.
Its dramatic vibrations were perhaps a scientific turning point, at least when compared to the plethora of literally cooler objects the solar system offers. Until one day in September 2020. Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK announced the detection of an astronomical biosignature called phosphine, baffling the world and catapulting this infamous neighbor into a much more favorable light. How could such a harsh place possibly harbor life? And if so, what does this say about Earth, its possibly shared history with Venus, and our future?
What’s new – NASA announced the DAVINCI+ mission, a name that intentionally alludes to the famous historical figure known in equal parts for his artistry and innovation.
For all that we have gleaned from Venus over the past 60 years, many space agencies have tried to explore this planet – such as the former Soviet Union’s Venera and Vega missions, NASA’s Magellan probe, the European spacecraft Venus Express and the Japanese current. Akatsuki Orbiter – there is still so much that remains unknown.
That will change in 2029, when NASA launches its new DAVINCI+ mission, reaching Venus in 2030 and 2031 to fly over and dive beneath its dark and mysterious clouds. The future spacecraft will use a suite of cameras, sensors and shielding materials to take state-of-the-art images of Venus’ terrain while helping teams determine which molecules are floating around in the planet’s atmosphere.
“DAVINCI+, Deep Atmosphere of Venus Investigation of Noble-gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, will carry instruments to analyze the atmosphere and provide new views of Venus that will be both scientifically transformative and visually stunning,” Researcher Stephanie Getty deputy principal for DAVINCI +, says Reverse.
Why is it important – The team set out its ambitions in an article published on May 24 in The Journal of Planetary Science. They will use the DAVINCI+ suite of instruments to answer:
- What is the origin of the atmosphere of Venus and how has it evolved?
- Was there a first ocean on Venus and, if so, when and where did it go?
- How and why is Venus different (or similar) to Earth and Mars?
- Are there signs of past processes in surface morphology and reflectance?
- What are the chemical and physical processes in clouds?
The same material likely hit the inner planets, and now that scientists have found evidence that the building blocks of life came from asteroids hitting a young Earth, it may be possible that something similar happened to Venus. .
“On Venus, we don’t know how much of the planet is made up of material from the original solar system, and whether impacts from water- and ice-rich comets or asteroids have added to the composition and evolution of Venus,” Getty said.
Studying the atmospheric composition of Venus and its terrestrial characteristics will tell a lot about its history.
“Some models interpret the preceding measures of the [Venusian] atmosphere to indicate that there was once a lot of liquid water on Venus in the form of oceans, possibly for billions of years, which would have made Venus look a lot more like Earth in the past,” says Getty . “That would be a really exciting realization – that our inner solar system was much more habitable in its past, with multiple ocean worlds.”
DAVINCI+ will help fill these gaps in our understanding of Venus, so that future generations will have a baseline to visualize data from this world. “We cannot confirm these models, however, without improved Venus atmosphere data, to give us a more complete history of how Venus’ atmosphere formed and evolved over time, and DAVINCI+ will fill the gap. these gaps in our knowledge,” Getty says.
How it works – DAVINCI+’s two cameras will take pictures of the surface of Venus.
A camera will fix the night side of Venus. This is the VISOR instrument (Venus Imaging System for Observational Reconnaissance). It will peer through clouds to detect different types of infrared glow from the surface, called emissivity, indicating unique features on the ground.
It is attached to the Carrier Relay Imaging Spacecraft (CRIS), which will perform two flybys of Venus. These maneuvers are tentatively scheduled for 2030, approximately nine months apart.
Another special camera will fall through the clouds of Venus. VenDI (Venus Descent Imager) will sink through its atmosphere in a titanium sphere, keeping the highly sensitive near-infrared camera relatively comfortable as it accesses one of the most grueling places in the solar system to study.
VenDI will land near Alpha Regio, an elevated region called a tessera that may hold clues to Venus’ ancient history. Alpha Regio should be easy enough for the probe to find because it’s “nearly twice the size of Texas”, according to the study.
The team will also take a closer look at molecules in Venus’ atmosphere. The CUVIS instrument, short for Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer, will fly aboard CRIS. NASA will allow it, using artificial intelligence, to determine the composition of Venus’ upper clouds, possibly revealing whether certain places in its atmosphere could harbor life.
Other DAVINCI+ instruments include:
- Venus Tunable Laser Spectrometer (VTLS)
- Venus Mass Spectrometer (VMS)
- Venus Atmosphere Structure Survey (VASI)
- Venus Oxygen Fugacity (VfOx)
And after – DAVINCI+ will launch in 2029 if all goes as planned. The mission will reach Venus about six months later and perform two flybys of the planet to study its clouds. The second maneuver will follow the first by about nine months. Then, seven months after the second flyby, DAVINCI+ will release its atmospheric descent probe during a third flyby.
DAVANCI+ will work in close collaboration with another mission, VERITAS, which will map the surface of Venus in search of volcanoes.