NASA has decided to return to Venus, our closest and perhaps most overlooked neighbor, after decades of exploring other worlds.
Miami World / AP
The new director of the space agency, Bill Nelson, announced on Wednesday two new robotic missions to the hottest planet in the solar system, in his first major address to employees.
“With these two sister missions we try to understand how Venus became a hellish world whose surface can melt lead,” said Nelson.
One of them, called DaVinci Plus, will analyze the thick and cloudy atmosphere of Venus to determine if that planet, now hot, once had an ocean and perhaps was habitable. A small probe will descend into the atmosphere to measure the gases.
The mission to the Venusian atmosphere will be the first for the United States since 1978.
The other expedition, called Veritas, will investigate the geological history of Venus by making a map of the rocky surface of the planet.
“It’s amazing how little we know about Venus,” but the new missions will offer new glimpses of its 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.”
NASA’s chief science officer, Thomas Zurbuchen, noted that this is “a new decade of Venus.” Each of the missions – which will take off between 2028 and 2030 – will have a funding of 500 million dollars within NASA’s Discovery program.
The missions to Venus outnumbered other projects: exploring Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in ice.
The United States and the now former Soviet Union sent several probes to Venus in the early years of space exploration. NASA’s Mariner 2 probe was the first to make a reconnaissance flight in 1962, and the Soviets’ Venera 7 landed on the surface in 1970.
In 1989, NASA used a space shuttle to send its Magellan probe to orbit Venus.
The European Space Agency got a probe to rotate around Venus in 2006.