Science

NASA’s DAVINCI mission could start a scientific renaissance on Venus

Venus will get an in-depth look in 2030.

Venus’ caramel-colored clouds have fascinated humans for millennia, reflecting sunlight to glimmer at twilight as the morning or evening star. In 2030, NASA will parse through those clouds like never before.

The DAVINCI+ mission will perform two flybys of Earth’s sibling to nestle into the right position to drop a probe carrying a camera towards its Texas-sized land formations through the cloud layers of Venus on a third pass. The space agency hopes to set in motion a new chapter of Venus exploration, adding pieces to the puzzle of if Earth and Venus were once more alike than they are now. In the process, it could reveal if life may have once — or still does — survive in this cauldron-esque environment.

Here’s the background — Humanity’s first interplanetary destination was Venus, which NASA first successfully studied in 1962 via its Mariner 2 spacecraft.

Venus has been a frequent first stop for probes that go on to explore the rest of the Solar System since 1973. As missions to Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun use the planet to course-correct via gravity assists, they’ve often made quick scans of their swing-dancing partner Venus.

But it’s hard to narrowly focus in on this planet. Venus has too much of almost everything perilous, boasting a runaway greenhouse effect, acidic droplets in its sky, temperatures about twice as hot as a household oven, and atmospheric pressure about 90 times higher than at the surface of the Earth.

Its dramatic vibes were perhaps a scientific turn-off, at least compared to the plethora of literally cooler objects the Solar System offers. Until one September day in 2020. Jane Greaves at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom announced the detection of an astronomical biosignature called phosphine, puzzling the whole world and catapulting this nefarious neighbor into a much more favorable light. How could such a harsh place conceivably host life? And if it does, what does this say about Earth, its possibly shared history with Venus, and our future?

What’s new — NASA has announced the DAVINCI+ mission, a name that intentionally alludes to the famous historical figure known in equal measures for his artistry and innovation.

For all we’ve gleaned about Venus over the past 60 years as many space agencies have given their exploration of this planet a try — such as the former Soviet Union’s Venera and Vega missions, NASA Magellan probe, Europe’s Venus Express spacecraft, and Japan’s current Akatsuki orbiter — there’s still so much that remains unknown.

The DAVINCI+ mission team outlines the context of their future spacecraft. Garvin, Getty et al./American Astronomical Society/DAVINCI/NASA

That will change in 2029, when NASA launches its new DAVINCI+ mission, reaching Venus in 2030 and 2031 to soar above and plunge below its obscuring and mysterious clouds. The future spacecraft will use a suite of cameras, sensors, and protective materials to take state-of-the-art images of Venus’s terrain while also helping teams determine what 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,” Stephanie Getty, deputy principal investigator for DAVINCI+, tells Inverse.

Why It Matters — The team outlined their ambitions in a paper published May 24 in The Planetary Science Journal. They’ll use DAVINCI+’s suite of instruments to answer:

  • What is the origin of Venus's atmosphere, and how has it evolved?
  • Was there an early ocean on Venus, and, if so, when and where did it go?
  • How and why is Venus different from (or similar to) Earth and Mars?
  • Are there any signs of past processes in surface morphology and reflectance?
  • What are the chemical and physical processes in the clouds?

The same material likely hit the inner planets, and now that scientists have found evidence that building blocks of life came from asteroids striking a young Earth, maybe it’s possible that something similar happened to Venus.

“On Venus, we don’t know how much of the planet is made up of original solar system materials, and whether impacts from water- and ice-rich comets or asteroids added to Venus’s composition and evolution,” Getty says.

Studying Venus’ atmospheric composition and its land features will reveal a lot about its history.

“Some models interpret previous measurements of the [Venusian] atmosphere to indicate that there was once a lot of liquid water on Venus as oceans, possibly for billions of years, which would have made Venus look much more Earth-like in the past,” Getty says. “That would be a really exciting realization — that our inner Solar System was much more habitable in its past, with multiple oceanic worlds.”

DAVINCI+ will help fill in those holes in our understanding of Venus, so that future generations will have a baseline with which to view data of that world. “We can’t confirm these models, though, without improved data of the Venus atmosphere, to give us a more complete history of how Venus’s atmosphere formed and how it changed over time, and DAVINCI+ will fill in these gaps in our knowledge,” Getty says.

How it works — DAVINCI+’s two cameras will take pictures of Venus’ surface.

One camera will stare at Venus’ nightside. It’s called the VISOR (Venus Imaging System for Observational Reconnaissance) instrument. It will peer through the clouds to detect the different types of infrared glow of 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, occurring roughly nine months apart.

DAVINCI+ mission team’s summary of its vertical descent phase, and the science it hopes to study at each stage. Garvin, Getty et al./American Astronomical Society/DAVINCI/NASA

Another special camera will fall through Venus’ clouds. VenDI (Venus Descent Imager) will sink through its atmosphere within a titanium sphere, keeping the highly-sensitive near-infrared camera relatively comfortable as it accesses one of the Solar System’s most grueling places to study.

VenDI will land near Alpha Regio, an elevated region called a tessera that may hold clues about Venus’ ancient history. Alpha Regio should be easy enough for the probe to find because it is “nearly twice the size of Texas,” the study says.

The team will also get a closer look at the molecules in Venus’ atmosphere. The CUVIS instrument, short for Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer, will fly aboard CRIS. NASA will enable it with artificial intelligence to figure out the composition of Venus’ upper clouds, possibly revealing if some places in its atmosphere could harbor life.

DAVINCI+’s other instruments include:

  • Venus Tunable Laser Spectrometer (VTLS)
  • Venus Mass Spectrometer (VMS)
  • Venus Atmosphere Structure Investigation (VASI)
  • Venus Oxygen Fugacity (VfOx)

What’s Next – DAVINCI+ will launch in 2029 if all goes according to schedule. 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 one by about nine months. Then, seven months after the second flyby, DAVINCI+ will release its atmospheric descent probe on a third flyby.

DAVINCI+ will work closely with another mission, VERITAS, which will map Venus’ surface, looking for volcanoes.

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