What NASA is up to in the clouds of Venus

In nine years (2031), our hot neighboring planet Venus will be visited by NASA’s DAVINCI mission (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging). In a paper, the scientists and engineers involved have now explained what the probe is supposed to do. As its name suggests, it is primarily concerned with the planet’s dense atmosphere, in which – unlike on the hot surface – conditions are expected to be favorable even for life. Davinci is therefore primarily a flying chemistry laboratory. Due mission consists of an orbiter (CRIS, carrier, relay and imaging spacecraft) and a lander. The orbiter has two instruments on board that will study the planet’s clouds and map the highland areas during flybys of Venus.

Once the CRIS system is about two days away from Venus, the lander will separate from the orbiter. The lander will make contact with Venus’ upper atmosphere at an altitude of about 120 kilometers above the surface, and then begin science observations from an altitude of about 67 kilometers – after dropping Titan’s heat shield. As it does so, the spacecraft’s inlets will collect gas samples from the atmosphere to make detailed chemical measurements like those already made by the Curiosity rover on Mars. During its hour-long descent to the surface, the probe will also photograph hundreds of images as it emerges from beneath the clouds at an altitude of about 30 kilometers above the local surface.

“This ensemble of chemistry, environmental and descent data will paint a picture of Venus’ layered atmosphere and its interaction with the surface in the mountains of the alpha region,” said Jim Garvin, lead author of the Planetary Science Journal article and DAVINCI principal investigator from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These measurements will allow us to assess the history of the atmosphere and identify specific rock types at the surface, such as granites, as well as look for landscape features that could tell us about erosion or other processes.” The goal is to survey Venus’ landscapes at scales from 100 meters down to one meter.

“The spacecraft will touch down in the Alpha Regio Mountains, but it will not need to be put into operation after landing because all the necessary science data will be recorded before it reaches the surface,” said Stephanie Getty, Goddard’s deputy research director. “However, if we survive landing at a speed of about 12 meters per second, we could still operate on the surface for up to 18 minutes under ideal conditions.”

“No previous mission to Venus’ atmosphere has measured the chemistry or environment in as much detail as the DAVINCI spacecraft can,” Garvin said. “In addition, no previous Venus mission has descended over Venus’ tessera highlands, and none has imaged the Venusian surface in descent. DAVINCI will build on what the Huygens probe accomplished on Titan and improve on previous in situ Venus missions, but with 21st century capabilities and sensors.”

The DAVINCI spacecraft descends through Venus’ dense carbon dioxide atmosphere toward the Alpha Regio Mountains. (Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, artist’s rendering).

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  • BrandonQMorris
  • Brandon Q. Morris is a physicist and space specialist. He has long been concerned with space issues, both professionally and privately and while he wanted to become an astronaut, he had to stay on Earth for a variety of reasons. He is particularly fascinated by the “what if” and through his books he aims to share compelling hard science fiction stories that could actually happen, and someday may happen. Morris is the author of several best-selling science fiction novels, including The Enceladus Series.

    Brandon is a proud member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and of the Mars Society.