NASA is finally going to Venus. And the missions—two missions, actually—could shine a light on a planet that, despite being Earth’s closest neighbor, has been cloaked in clouds and mystery for a generation.
The space agency on Wednesday announced not one but two missions to Venus, the second planet from the Sun and, at no more than 150 million miles distant, the closest planet to Earth. Mars, the fourth rock from the sun, is 212 million miles from Earth at its closest.
“We know a lot about Mars and even Jupiter and Saturn,” John Logsdon, a former NASA adviser and ex-director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast. “Venus is our nearest neighbor and is largely unexplored.”
NASA last went to Venus in 1990. That’s when the Magellan probe arrived over Mars for a four-year stay loosely mapping the volcanic planet. Spacecraft from foreign space agencies have visited since then—the European Space Agency sent a probe in 2006; the Japanese space agency visited in 2010—but NASA, despite its much greater resources, has sat it out, instead preferring to spend its time and money on missions to the moon and Mars.
But Venus is special. It’s not as close by, and it’s ripe for mining, as the moon is. It’s not as benign as Mars is, meaning it’s less welcoming to human explorers. But its poisonous sulfuric clouds and potentially volcanic surface could harbor important secrets that, if and when we crack them, could tell us as much about Earth as Venus.
Because Venus experienced its own global warming eons ago, the planet might hold clues about Earth’s future. And if there’s life, or evidence of extinct life, on its now-inhospitable surface, Venus might have something to tell us about our own planet’s distant past. We won’t know for sure until we get there.
“Venus is a near-twin to the Earth in many respects, so close and nearly identical in size, and for all we know the two planets were quite similar when young,” David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist with the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute, told The Daily Beast. “But they’ve evolved down very different pathways. Venus has much to tell us about how Earth-like planets evolve, how their climates can change, how they can lose the surface conditions we depend upon for life and how the Earth may end up in the far future.”
“It’s a first-rate tragedy,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer who works for the California-based SETI Institute, told The Daily Beast. “Four billion years ago, Venus and Earth really were sister planets—oceans on both, atmospheres on both, et cetera. But like Jeffrey Dahmer, Venus went bad. Carbon dioxide built up in its atmosphere, fostering global warming at industrial scales.”
“Today, the daytime temperature on this planet is about 800 degrees,” Shostak added. “The oceans would have boiled away a long time ago, the atmospheric water vapor’s gone too. It’s become hell on Earth, except that it’s on Venus. Exactly how that happened, exactly how Venus chose Dante’s Inferno, is still being debated. But the whole story—like many tragedies—is interesting, and possibly relevant to our own battle with climate change.”
“It is a priceless nearby laboratory to understand climate evolution, the fates of Earthlike planets and the distribution of life in the universe. There are huge mysteries there which tap into our deepest and most urgent questions about climate change, about life in the universe and the possible uniqueness of our planetary existence.”
To crack these secrets, NASA plans to send two separate probes, both sometime between 2028 and 2030. The space agency announced both missions Wednesday as the opening move in what could be a years-long negotiation with Congress and successive presidential administrations over the missions’ funding and schedules. NASA has set aside $1 billion to begin work on the probes.
The Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging mission, or DAVINCI+, aims to scan Venus’ atmosphere with a spherical probe that will plunge through the planet’s toxic atmosphere, sampling the unbreathable air “to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared to the Earth’s,” according to NASA.
The DAVINCI+ probe will also take detailed pictures, NASA claimed. The photos could settle, once and for all, a fundamental question: whether the planet has tectonic plates the way our own planet does. “The results from DAVINCI+ could reshape our understanding of terrestrial planet formation in our solar system and beyond,” the space agency explained.
Around the same time, the separate Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy probe—or VERITAS—will orbit Venus and use its onboard radar and infrared sensor to scan the planet.
“VERITAS will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth,” NASA states. The VERITAS probe, with its high-tech synthetic-aperture radar, will chart elevations across much of Venus in much more detail than Magellan with its own less sophisticated radar could do back in 1990.
The charts should allow scientists to create 3D models of Venus that could allow them to confirm whether the planet has tectonic plates as Earth does and whether Venus’ volcanoes are still active.
Meanwhile, the VERITAS infrared sensor could help NASA to determine, for the first time, what kind of rock Venus is made of.
Scientists praised the twin-probe approach, despite its likely multibillion-dollar price tag. “Each will fill in the limitations in the other’s ability to do a comprehensive survey of the entire complex planetary beast that is Venus, and together they will help us unravel the mysteries of our geologically active and atmospherically fascinating neighboring planet,” Grinspoon said.
Plus, sending two probes means NASA could still gather useful data even if one probe malfunctions or crashes. That sort of thing happens all the time in space exploration. It’s even likelier on or above Venus owing to the planet’s high temperatures and pressures, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at the Technical University Berlin, told The Daily Beast.
DAVINCI+ is the most likely of the two new probes to get into trouble, as it plummets through Venus’ atmosphere scooping up gas that could help to unlock the poisonous planet’s secrets—and possibly Earth’s secrets, too.