NASA's Past Venus Missions Explained As It Announces VERITAS and DAVINCI+ Discovery Probes

NASA has announced that it will send two probes to Venus towards the end of the decade, in what will be the first time the agency has visited the hellish planet in more than 30 years.

In a statement on Wednesday, NASA said the two separate missions, called VERITAS and DAVINCI+, would launch some time between 2028 and 2030 and cost around $500 million each. VERITAS stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy, and DAVINCI+ for Deep Atmosphere of Venus Investigations of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging. The plus sign alludes to improvements on a past proposal.

The two orbiting probes will aim to study Venus' surface as well as its thick atmosphere. VERITAS could help scientists determine whether the planet still has active volcanism and plate tectonics. DAVINCI+ will look into why Venus' atmosphere soaks up so much of the sun's heat.

In other words, the missions will help scientists understand why Venus turned out so differently to Earth.

Although Mars has piqued the world's interest, Venus is actually—in terms of size and structure—rather similar to Earth. It is also the closest planet to us.

NASA has described Venus as a "'lost habitable' world" and some scientists think water once flowed on its surface.

Yet Venus is a decidedly unwelcoming planet today. It is the hottest planet in the solar system with a surface temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning lead would melt there. Its surface pressure is crushing, on average 95 times the pressure of Earth's. And the atmosphere is toxic, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide coupled with yellow clouds of sulfuric acid.

A number of probes have ventured there before. The last NASA mission to visit Venus was the Magellan spacecraft, which launched in 1989 and arrived there in 1990. It orbited the boiling planet for around four years, producing a map of the surface and studying its gravity before deliberately plunging into the clouds to be destroyed.

The only countries to land a probe on the surface of Venus are the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

After a number of failed attempts, Soviet scientists made the first soft landing on Venus' surface with the Venera 7 probe in 1970, which managed to transmit data back to Earth for around 23 minutes before the heat and pressure destroyed it.

In 1978, one probe from NASA's Pioneer Venus Multiprobe vehicle unexpectedly managed to land and survive on the surface for 45 minutes.

The Soviet Union achieved similar success with Venera 9 and Venera 13, with the former becoming the first probe to send back a photo of the Venusian surface. The two probes lasted 53 minutes and around two hours on the surface, respectively, before succumbing to the harsh environment.

Other missions have conducted flybys or orbits of Venus in order to take measurements of the planet's atmosphere, magnetic field, and mass. These have included NASA's Mariner 2, Mariner 5 and Mariner 10 which launched in the '60s and '70s, and Pioneer Venus, which arrived there in 1980 and worked until 1992.

Other national agencies have visited, too. The European Space Agency launched its Venus Express mission in 2005 which investigated the planet's heat absorption and possibility of volcanic activity on the surface.

Today, Japan is currently orbiting Venus with its Akatsuki probe, which made a successful orbit insertion in 2015.

Correction 6/11/2021, 12:03 p.m. ET: This article previously stated the only country to land a probe on Venus was the Soviet Union. The U.S. also unexpectedly landed a probe on Venus.

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A stock photo of an artist's impression of the planet Venus. The world has a hellish surface environment. Getty Images