Back to the ‘hothouse’: NASA announces two upcoming missions to study the planet Venus

Story Highlights

  • This is the first time humans have sent probes to the planet since the early 1990s.
  • The missions, known as DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, are scheduled to launch in the late 2020s.
  • Venus was in the news in 2020, when scientists announced the discovery of a possible sign of life high in the clouds of the planet.

After over 30 years, we’re headed back to Venus.

On Wednesday, NASA announced a pair of upcoming robotic missions to study our closest neighbor, the first time humans have sent probes to the planet since the early 1990s.

According to NASA, the missions’ goal is to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours – and may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate.

The missions, known as DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, are scheduled to launch in the late 2020s. 

“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 associate administrator for science, in a statement. 

“Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse.

“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,” he said.

Venus hides a wealth of information that could help us better understand Earth and exoplanets. NASA is designing missions to survive the planet's extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Exoplanets are planets beyond our solar system. 

DAVINCI+ (an acronym for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as to confirm whether the planet ever had an ocean.

The mission consists of a probe that will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared to Earth’s. 

Life on Venus?: Astronomers see hint of life in clouds of Venus

Temperatures at the surface of Venus are some 900 degrees, which is hot enough to melt lead. 

The other mission, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth.

Venus was in the news in 2020, when scientists announced the discovery of a possible sign of life high in the clouds of the planet, according to a study in the journal Nature Astronomy.  

Using telescopes based in Chile and Hawaii, astronomers spotted in Venus’ clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life.

Based on the many scenarios the astronomers considered, the team concluded that there is no explanation for the phosphine detected in Venus’ clouds, other than the presence of life.

DAVINCI+ could help prove the existence of phosphine on Venus, scientists said.

“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.”

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