Why NASA might send robots to Venus

NASA will be building on its recent highly successful Mars missions by exploring our other next-door neighbor in the solar system.

Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch/AP
Venus, lower left, travels between the sun and the earth, in what is known as a Venus transit, in this image taken through a telescope, inverting the image, on Tuesday, June 5, at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minn.

As part of its Discovery Program, in which contestants from universities and NASA-affiliated research centers propose ideas for space missions that will have a low cost (usually under $425 million) but a high scientific yield, NASA selected five participants to join in the development of new exploratory ventures. This expands the number of winners in the program beyond the typical one or two.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

In particular, NASA is looking to build off of its recent highly successful explorations to Mars, in which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took flyby images that revealed the Red Planet has water underneath its craggy surface. There are two possible missions to Venus that, if funded, could send unmanned spacecraft to Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. The information that these robotic probes could collect would answer many questions about Venus' atmosphere and surface.

Each of the two proposed missions to Venus would fall under the direction of a different NASA center. The first, Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI), would study the chemical makeup of Venus’ atmosphere. The robotic probe would also use its imaging tools to determine if there are any active volcanoes on Venus’ surface, and how its planetary landscape interacts with its atmosphere.

Lori Glaze, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, would be the principal investigator for the DAVINCI project. The Goddard Center has done research on Venus in the past; this summer, they examined how light filters through Venus’ atmosphere.

“Learning more about the composition of the atmosphere is very important for understanding the braking process for spacecraft when they enter the upper atmosphere of the planet, a process called aerobraking,” Fabio Reale, the director of that scientific investigation, said in a statement.

The second proposed mission to Venus, called the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission, or VERITAS, seeks to go below the atmosphere. If funded, VERITAS would produce topographical images of Venus’ surface, creating “the first maps of deformation and global surface composition,” according to NASA.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California would direct the VERITAS project. The JPL has launched several successful unmanned spacecraft  to Venus in the past. In 1990, the JPL sent the unmanned spacecraft Magellan to Venus, where it made several successful orbits around that planet, mapping various locations along its surface until it decayed upon entry into Venus’ atmosphere in 1994.  

“[The Discovery Program announcement] sends a very positive message that it’s time to go back to Venus,” Glaze told Science Magazine.

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