NASA will send two new missions to Venus to learn more about how the planet's hellish atmosphere turned so hostile over its history.
The announcement came on Wednesday (June 2) during NASA administrator Bill Nelson's livestreamed State of NASA speech. The two missions, called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were selected from NASA's shortlist of four spacecraft for the next round of Discovery missions; the other two contenders would have visited Jupiter's volcanic moon Io and Neptune's largest moon Triton.
DAVINCI+ (short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging) will plunge through the thick Venus atmosphere to learn more about it changes over time. Meanwhile, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy) mission will use radar to map Venus' surface in detail from orbit.
"We hope these missions will further our understanding of how Earth evolved, and why it's currently habitable when others in our solar system are not," Nelson said, alluding to the recent NASA refocusing on climate change under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January.
"Planetary science is critical in answering key questions that we have as humans, like, Are we alone? What implications beyond our solar system could these two missions [show]? This is really exciting stuff," Nelson said.
Discovery missions are capped at $500 million, excluding costs for the launch vehicle and mission operations. Both new Venus missions will launch between 2028 and 2030 and will carry technology demonstrations as well as the main science components, NASA said in a press release.
VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, a successor to similar technology that launched to Earth orbit in June 2019. "The ultra-precise clock signal generated with this technology will ultimately help enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations," NASA stated.
DAVINCI+ will host the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS), the agency added, which will make high resolution measurements of ultraviolet light using a new instrument based on freeform optics," NASA officials wrote. "These observations will be used to determine the nature of the unknown ultraviolet absorber in Venus' atmosphere that absorbs up to half the incoming solar energy."
There was little else new in the State of NASA speech, as it included allusions to climate change science, the Artemis moon-landing program and other recent announcements by the Biden administration. Nelson was sworn in as administrator May 3 and the career space politician opened his speech with anecdotes from his six-day flight on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
He used those memories of the fragility of the Earth to reintroduce the Earth System Observatory system the agency said it would design last week to combat global warming. "Anyone who has flown [in space], or who sees these dramatic photos and videos, you look at the rim of the Earth and you can actually see the thin film of the atmosphere," Nelson said. "You realize that that is what sustains all of life … and you could see from that altitude how we're messing it up."
The new observatory system includes five planned satellites, the first of which would launch in 2023, Nelson said. He hinted there would be more to come in terms of climate science announcements. "The Earth System Observatory is just one of the many missions that we have on the horizon, and I'm excited to share more about the exciting future we have in store here at NASA," he said.
The new administrator also paid tribute to the Perseverance rover mission, which landed on Mars on Feb. 18 and helped to launch the Ingenuity drone for the first-ever flights on Mars. "Since then, we've created oxygen on Mars and we've seen Ingenuity — that little helicopter — defeating the odds and outliving its planned lifespan. It transitioned from a tech demo to a scout," Nelson said. (Ingenuity experienced an anomaly on its latest flight, but pulled through to a safe landing.)
Other NASA activities Nelson highlighted included the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope "in just a few months" (NASA and its partner on the mission, the European Space Agency, had announced on Tuesday (June 1) that the mission may delay a few weeks to November) the beginning of the commercial crew program in 2020, and ongoing development for the Artemis moon-landing program.
Nelson said nothing about the moon-landing deadline of 2024, originally proposed by the administration of President Donald Trump; during a news conference held on Friday (May 28), NASA Chief Financial Officer Steve Shinn acknowledged the timeline could be pushed, "because space development is so hard." Instead, Nelson focused on the program's goal to put the first woman and (a new announcement from April) the first person of color on the moon. "The United States must and will continue to lead the way globally, not just in exploration, but also in equity," he said.
The address also included a cameo prerecorded video from "Star Trek: The Original Series" captain William Shatner, best known as Captain James T. Kirk to Trekkies, mainly pondering "why we exist" and NASA's aspirations to seek out habitable environments in the universe.
While this is Nelson's first major address as administrator, other priorities came to the fore during his first Congressional hearing two weeks ago as he pledged action about Artemis and recent Chinese activities on the moon and Mars. China's push for 'space superiority' also came up during a Senate hearing this month considering the nomination of former astronaut Pam Melroy as NASA deputy administrator.
Nelson's speech today left out mention of the troubled Artemis human landing system (HLS) development. Contract competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics have protested the award of that contract to SpaceX in April; during Nelson's confirmation hearing, senators pushed him about the importance of having multiple different systems to ensure competitive results. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has until Aug. 4 to decide whether NASA should award a second contract to build a second, redundant HLS.
Nelson also did not talk about commercial development of low Earth orbit, which received $101.1 million in Biden's budget request for fiscal year 2022, which begins in October. The value is up nearly 500% from the previous year. Involvement in the International Space Station is still a priority of the new administration; Biden's $1.3 million budget request is roughly equivalent to 2021's allocation.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.