Two robotic missions to a new planet are on the schedule, NASA announced on Wednesday, June 2. Not to Mars this time, but Venus.
For the past 25 years, we’ve explored Mars because, frankly, it’s the easy choice. Mars is remarkably hospitable for an alien planet, and so we’ve sent robot after robot to roll around under its thin skies. But NASA is looking a little closer to home.
Venus is the closest planet to us in the solar system, an Earth-sized “evil twin” with a noxious, super-heated atmosphere. Like Mars and Earth, it’s a rocky planet, but that navigable surface is under a thick, hellish atmosphere.
“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” said Bill Nelson, NASA’s new administrator in an employee address. Each mission will have a development budget of approximately half a billion dollars to start with. The U.S. has not sent a craft into Venus’s atmosphere since 1978.
The first of the two missions, named DaVinci Plus, will send a small orbital craft through the Venusian atmosphere to gather and measure gasses. The hope is that the data will tell us if Venus ever had an ocean and what exactly makes up its atmosphere.
The second mission, named Veritas, will hopefully send a surface rover capable of withstanding the planet’s atmospheric heat and acidity to begin mapping the surface, letting scientists back home study the geological history of Venus.
“It is astounding how little we know about Venus,” but the new robotic missions will give us all new data about the make-up of the planet itself, from the atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide down to the core, NASA scientist Tom Wagner said in a statement. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
The program, informally called “a new decade of Venus” beat out two other proposed focuses – Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s ice moon Triton.