In September 2020, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared, “It’s time to prioritize Venus,” after scientists discovered compelling evidence for life on the hellish planet, which can melt lead at its 900 degree Fahrenheit surface.
Nine months later, the federal space agency unveiled not one, but two missions to the long-neglected planet for the first time in three decades after United States and Soviet exploration ceased in the 1990s.
The discovery of the molecule phosphine on Venus’s clouds, however, has renewed interest in the planet most similar to Earth than any other in the solar system with its size and composition. The only plausible explanation for the chemical compound in the planet’s clouds is the existence of life producing it as waste, leading NASA to launch two probes to investigate, slated for launch at the end of the decade.
The DAVINCI+ and the VERITAS missions will conclusively confirm whether phosphine does indeed exist in the atmosphere and probe for microbial life on the planet closest to Earth in orbit.
The VERITAS probe, which stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography & Spectroscopy, will launch first, mapping out the planet’s surface with a three-dimensional map in 21st-century detail, an upgrade from the maps the Magellan mission produced when it spent four years doing the same in 1990.
DAVINCI+ will follow, examining the existence of phosphine with a launch scheduled for 2029 and slated for two flybys in 2030 before it drops a probe of instruments into the planet’s clouds in 2031.
In today's #StateOfNASA address, we announced two new @NASASolarSystem missions to study the planet Venus, which we haven't visited in over 30 years! DAVINCI+ will analyze Venus’ atmosphere, and VERITAS will map Venus’ surface. pic.twitter.com/yC5Etbpgb8
— NASA (@NASA) June 2, 2021
Few probes have explored Venus in comparison to Mars, Earth’s next neighbor further from the sun. NASA landed the Perseverance rover on the red surface in February as the most sophisticated piece of machinery to explore the planet to date. Mars’ cooler surface, where average temperatures hover below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with less severe weather, make it far more suitable for on-the-ground exploration than Venus’s dense atmosphere, where the pressure on the surface is so intense it can crush submarines while plagued with poison rain and 900 degree temperatures.
No rover to land on the planet’s surface to date has lasted longer than a few hours before Venus’s harsh conditions compromised the machinery.
The warmer temperatures in Venus’s clouds, however, lead astronomers to believe they may be hospitable for microbial life, raising the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Earth’s closest neighbor.