NASA scientists are preparing to paint the most detailed picture yet of Venus’ atmosphere when the aptly named DAVINCI — or Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging — mission drops a probe on the planet’s surface.
When the DAVINCI mission’s 3-foot-wide (0.9 m) descent sphere makes the one-way parachute trip to Aphroditeto the surface in the early 2030s, it will carry the Venus Atmospheric Structure Investigation (VASI) instrument along with five other instruments. VASI will collect data on its temperature, pressure and winds The atmosphere of Venus as it makes its hellish descent into the planet’s overwhelming lower atmosphere.
“There are actually some big puzzles about the deep atmosphere of Venus,” said Ralph Lorenz, chief science officer for the VASI instrument and a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland. statement. “We don’t have all the pieces of this puzzle, and DAVINCI will give us those pieces by measuring composition simultaneously with pressure and temperature as we approach the surface.”
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Venus’ dense atmosphere holds many mysteries, including how it was formed, as well as how the planet’s many volcanoes have interacted with it over the centuries. One of the main goals of scientists for plunging a probe into the atmosphere of the second planet from the sun is to determine if this world is still volcanically active. The probe could sniff this out through measurements of atmospheric temperature, winds and composition.
Solving these puzzles could give scientists an idea of what continued volcanic activity might mean for our planet’s atmosphere.
“The long-term habitability of our planet, as we understand it, is based on the coupling of the interior and the atmosphere,” Lorenz said. “The long-term abundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which we really rely on to have kept the Earth’s surface warm enough to be habitable over geologic time, is based on volcanoes.”
A one-way trip to Venus
One of the main challenges associated with exploring Venus has been the extreme conditions of the planet, which boasts surface pressures up to 90 times that of Earth and surface temperatures around 900 degrees Fahrenheit (460 degrees Celsius).
Additionally, before any probe can reach the planet’s surface from its orbit, it must first pass through clouds of sulfuric acid in Venus’ upper atmosphere. (These clouds also happen to make Venus difficult to observe from Earth; reflective and bright, they obscure our view of the planet’s surface.)
These threats mean that DAVINCI’s cathode ray systems and sensors will be enclosed within a durable submarine-like structure. But while the sphere is built to withstand intense atmospheric pressures and is insulated to protect the sensors from the intense heat near the surface of Venus, VASI’s sensors must be somewhat exposed to the harsh conditions to do their job.
“Venus is harsh. The conditions, especially low in the atmosphere, make it very difficult to engineer instruments and instrument support systems,” Lorenz said. “All of these must either be protected from the environment or engineered in some way to tolerate them.”
As the sphere falls through Venus’ atmosphere, VASI will measure the temperature with a sensor inside a thin metal tube that looks like a straw. As the atmosphere heats the pipe, the sensor measures and records the expansion and thus the temperature without being directly exposed to the corrosive environment.
VASI will collect atmospheric pressure measurements using a silicon membrane enclosed within it. One side of the membrane is exposed to vacuum while the other side views the atmosphere of Venus. The atmosphere pushes on the membrane, stretching it, and the extent of this stretch reveals the strength of the atmospheric pressure.
The instrument will measure Venus’ winds with a combination of accelerometers that monitor changes in speed and direction and gyroscopes that measure orientation. The mission will also track changes in wind speed and direction by tracking changes in the frequency and wavelength of radio waves.
Named after the Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, DAVINCI is scheduled to launch in 2029. If it stays on schedule, the descent sphere will plunge into the dense atmosphere of Venus in 2031.
The drop will last about an hour. The probe is not expected to survive the fall, but if it does, NASA scientists are poised to get about 17 minutes of science on the surface with the doomed device.
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