After decades of exploring other worlds, NASA is returning to our closest but perhaps most overlooked neighbor, Venus.
The space agency’s new administrator, Bill Nelson, announced two new robotic missions to the solar system’s hottest planet in his first major address to staff on Wednesday.
“The purpose of these two sister missions is to understand how Venus became a hell-like world capable of melting lead on the surface,” Nelson said.
One mission, named DaVinci Plus, will analyze the dense, cloudy Venusian atmosphere in an attempt to determine whether the planet ever had an ocean and was possibly habitable. A small craft will descend into the atmosphere to measure the gases.
It will be the first US-led mission in the atmosphere of Venus since 1978.
The other mission, called Veritas, will seek geologic history by mapping the rocky planet’s surface.
‘Surprising’ amount to learn
“It’s amazing how little we know about Venus,” NASA scientist Tom Wagner said in a statement, “but the new missions will give new ideas about the planet’s atmosphere, which is composed mostly of carbon dioxide.”
“It will look like we’ve rediscovered the planet.”
NASA’s top science official, Thomas Zurbuchen, calls it “a new decade of Venus.”
Each mission — launching around 2028 to 2030 — will receive $500 million for development under NASA’s Discovery program.
The mission beat out two other proposed projects, for Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s icy moon Triton.
In the early days of space exploration, the US and the former Soviet Union sent several spacecraft to Venus. NASA’s Mariner 2 performed the first successful flyby in 1962, and the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 made the first successful landing in 1970.
In 1989, NASA used a spacecraft to send its Magellan spacecraft into orbit around Venus.
The European Space Agency placed a spacecraft around Venus in 2006.
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