DAVINCI+ investigates the divergent fate of Earth’s mysterious twin sister

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DAVINCI+ will send a one meter diameter probe to brave the high temperatures and pressures near the surface of Venus to explore the atmosphere from above the clouds to near the surface of terrain that may have passed beyond a continent. During its final miles of free fall (shown here), the probe will capture spectacular images and chemical measurements of the deepest atmosphere on Venus for the first time. Credit: NASA GSFC visualization by CI Labs Michael Lentz and others

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Although the earth and Venus are similar in size and location, they are very different worlds today. While Earth has oceans of water and an abundance of life, Venus is arid and fiercely inhospitable. Although it is slightly closer to the sun — about 70 percent of the distance from Earth — Venus is much hotter, with temperatures at the surface high enough to melt lead. The scorched landscape is obscured by sulfur clouds acid, and it is smothered by a thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide at more than 90 times the pressure of Earth, causing the air to behave more like a liquid than a gas on the surface.

However, scientists think that Venus may have been more like Earth in the past, a world with water oceans that was possibly habitable for life, perhaps for billions of years. They hypothesize that something may have caused a “runaway greenhouse effect” in Venus’ atmosphere, causing the temperature to rise and the oceans to evaporate. NASAThe DAVINCI+ mission is set to explore Venus to determine if it was habitable and to understand how these similar worlds ended up with such different fates.

“Venus is a ‘Rosetta stone’ for reading the record books of climate change, the evolution of habitability and what happens when a planet loses a long period of surface oceans,” said James Garvin, principal investigator for DAVINCI+ at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But Venus is ‘difficult’ because every clue is hidden behind the curtain of a huge opaque atmosphere with inhospitable conditions for surface exploration, so we have to be smart and bring our best ‘scientific instruments’ to Venus in innovative ways with missions like DAVINCI+. That’s why we named our mission ‘DAVINCI+’ after Leonardo da Vinci’s inspired and visionary renaissance thinking that went beyond science to connect engineering, technology and even art.”


DAVINCI+ uses observations from both above and within the planetary atmosphere to answer important questions about how Venus formed, evolved and possibly lost its habitability (and past surface oceans). Its “natural vertical mobility” extends from the top of the atmosphere, through the clouds and then through the deep atmosphere to just above the surface, where 3D imaging of mountain landscapes will be undertaken along with detailed chemistry. Credit: NASA GSFC Visualization and CI Labs Michael Lentz and colleagues

The scientific impact of DAVINCI+ will extend even beyond the solar system to Venus-like planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets), which are expected to be common and important targets for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. But these planets may be difficult to interpret, especially if they’re shrouded in thick Venus-like clouds.

“Venus is the ‘exoplanet in our backyard” that can help us understand these distant analog worlds by providing ground truth to improve the computer models we will use to interpret exo-Venus planets,” said Giada Arney, deputy principal investigator for DAVINCI+ at NASA Goddard. “But there’s so much about Venus that we still don’t understand, and this is where DAVINCI+ comes in. Excitingly, if Venus was habitable in the past, some exo-Venus planets could also be habitable! So DAVINCI+’s research on the evolution of Venus can help us better understand how habitable worlds are distributed elsewhere in the universe, and how habitable planets generally evolve over time.”

The mission, Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus, will consist of a spacecraft and a probe. The spacecraft will track the movement of the clouds and map the surface composition by measuring the heat emission from the surface of Venus that escapes into space through the massive atmosphere. The probe will descend through the atmosphere and sample its chemistry, as well as temperature, pressure and wind. The probe will also take the first high-resolution images of Alpha Regio, an ancient highland twice the size of Texas with rugged mountains, looking for evidence that Earth’s crustal water influenced surface materials.

Launch is scheduled for FY2030 with two Venus flybys ahead of the probe’s descent. The flybys are the first phase of the remote sensing mission to study atmospheric circulation and map the surface composition. About two years later, the probe will be released to conduct its investigation of the atmosphere during a descent that will last about an hour before landing on Alpha Regio.

NASA has selected the DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble-gases, Chemistry and Imaging+) mission as part of its Discovery program, and it will be the first probe to enter the Venusian atmosphere since NASA’s Pioneer Venus in 1978 and USSR’s Vega in 1985. Named after the visionary Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, the DAVINCI+ mission will bring 21st century technologies to the world next door. DAVINCI+ can reveal whether Earth’s sister planet was more like Earth’s twin planet in a distant, possibly hospitable past with oceans and continents. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“The next step in Venus exploration requires a capable payload of instruments that can use modern capabilities to produce definitive data sets that transform our understanding of our planetary environment,” said Stephanie Getty, deputy principal investigator for DAVINCI+ at NASA Goddard. “DAVINCI+ uses proven tools for today’s most innovative Venus science problems, and we are excited to bring an energetic scientific community on our journey as we deliver the chemical, geological and atmospheric dynamic datasets that will drive the next great discoveries.” generate – and subsequent big questions – about Venus and Venus-like worlds.”

The probe will contain four instruments. Two of them – the Venus Mass Spectrometer (VMS) and the Venus Tunable Laser Spectrometer (VTLS) – will conduct the first complete composition study of the full cross-section of Venus’ atmospheric gases, looking for clues as to how, when and why the climate of Venus has changed so dramatically. The third instrument, the Venus Atmospheric Structure Investigation (VASI), will measure pressure, temperature and wind from an altitude of about 70 kilometers to the surface with a resolution of 10 times (or more) than any previous Venus probe. After the probe sinks beneath the thick cloud layer, the Venus Descent Imager (VenDI) instrument will capture hundreds of near-infrared images of the Alpha Regio highlands, which the team will use to create maps of topography and composition. These images show landscapes unique to Venus at the high resolutions typical of landers (close to the surface).

The spacecraft will have one instrument, a suite of four cameras called VISOR (Venus Imaging System from Orbit for Reconnaissance). One camera will be sensitive to ultraviolet light to track cloud movements in the atmosphere. In addition, an array of three cameras sensitive to near-infrared light will be able to identify the surface composition on a regional scale by analyzing the near-infrared heat emission from the surface when the spacecraft is over the night side of Venus. Since the composition of rocks can be affected by water, these images will provide clues about how ancient oceans formed the crust of Venus. The camera suite provides the first composition maps of Ishtar Terra, the high latitude “continent” on Venus with an altitude range of up to 11 kilometers. Ishtar may be the latest manifestation of a kind of plate tectonics on Venus that stopped when the oceans disappeared about a billion years ago.

NASA Goddard is the primary research institution and will perform project management for the mission, as well as project systems engineering to develop the probe flight system. Goddard will build the VMS instrument in conjunction with the University of Michigan and the VASI instrument sensor systems. Goddard also leads the project science support team.

Key partners are Lockheed Martin, Denver, Colorado, which will build the aeroshell and backshell (the entry and exit system) to carry the probe into the atmosphere and provide the parachutes to place it on the correct descent trajectory, as well as the probe carrier spacecraft, the probe flyby telecom system, the flyby science platform for the VISOR camera suite, and the carrier/orbital spacecraft. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland will provide the two-way Frontier radio that the mission will use for communication between the probe and the spacecraft, as well as scientific leadership of the VASI element. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, will provide the VTLS instrument. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California, will provide the cameras, including the VenDI descent camera and the orbital/flyby VISOR suite. NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, will provide support for entry-descent systems, and NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley will collaborate on the thermal protection system and entry-level measurement systems. KinetX, Inc., Tempe, Arizona, will support flight dynamics and trajectory development with Goddard and Lockheed Martin.

Discovery-Program-class missions such as DAVINCI+ complement NASA’s larger “flagship” planetary science explorations, aiming to achieve excellent results by launching more smaller missions with fewer resources and shorter development times. They are administered for NASA’s Planetary Science Division by the Planetary Missions Program Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The missions are designed and led by a principal investigator, who assembles a team of scientists and engineers to answer key scientific questions about the solar system.

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