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NASA will launch a mission that will both fly by Venus and descend through its harsh atmosphere in 2029. Called DAVINCI, the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging mission will be the first to study Venus through both flybys and descent.
The spacecraft is expected to explore the layered Venusian atmosphere and reach its surface by June 2031. The DAVINCI mission will be able to capture data about Venus that scientists have been eager to measure since the early 1980s.
The DAVINCI spacecraft will essentially serve as a flying chemistry lab that can measure different aspects of Venus’ atmosphere and climate and take the first descent images of the planet’s highlands. The mission’s instruments will also be able to map the Venusian surface and detect the composition of Venus’ mountainlike highlands.
These features, called “tesserae,” may be similar to continents on Earth, which means Venus may have plate tectonics, according to NASA scientists.
“This ensemble of chemistry, environmental, and descent imaging data will paint a picture of the layered Venus atmosphere and how it interacts with the surface in the mountains of Alpha Regio, which is twice the size of Texas,” said Jim Garvin, DAVINCI principal investigator from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.
“These measurements will allow us to evaluate historical aspects of the atmosphere as well as detect special rock types at the surface such as granites while also looking for tell-tale landscape features that could tell us about erosion or other formational processes.”
The initiative would also investigate the possibility of an ocean in Venus’ past by measuring gases and components of water in the deepest part of the atmosphere. Venus may have been the first habitable world in our solar system, including an ocean and climate similar to Earth – but something happened to turn it into a planet with temperatures hot enough to melt lead.
Venus likely maintained stable temperatures and hosted liquid water for billions of years before an event triggered drastic changes in the planet, according to a 2019 study. The study author, physical scientist Michael Way at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science in New York City, also coauthored a 2016 study about climate and oceans on Venus in its past.
Now, Venus is a mostly dead planet with a toxic atmosphere 90 times thicker than that of our home planet and surface temperatures that reach 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius).
As DAVINCI flies by Venus several times, it will use two instruments to study the clouds and map the highlands from orbit. Then, it will drop a descent probe carrying five instruments all the way to the surface.
The descent will take about an hour and a heat shield will be used to protect the probe until it’s about 42 miles (67 kilometers) above the surface. Then, it will jettison the shield to sample and analyze atmospheric gases. The descent probe will also capture hundreds of images once it clears Venus’ clouds 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) above the surface.
“The probe will touch-down in the Alpha Regio mountains but is not required to operate once it lands, as all of the required science data will be taken before reaching the surface,” said Stephanie Getty, deputy principal investigator from Goddard, in a statement. “If we survive the touchdown at about 25 miles per hour (11 meters/second), we could have up to 17-18 minutes of operations on the surface under ideal conditions.”