Venus is back on NASA’s agenda. Today, NASA winnowed down the contenders for the agency’s next low-cost planetary science mission. Five finalists were announced from among 27 proposals in Discovery, a competitive mission line with a $500 million cost cap, and two of them are missions to Venus, not visited by a NASA spacecraft since 1994. The other three finalists would study asteroids.
“It sends a very positive message that it’s time to go back to Venus,” says Lori Glaze, a planetary scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the leader of one of the two Venus mission proposals.
Typically, NASA picks just three finalists in its Discovery competitions, which take place every few years. But this time the agency may choose two winners instead of the usual one, says Michael New, Discovery program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The two winners’ development and launch would be staggered. “It depends on what our budgets in the out years look like,” he says. “Based on what we’ve seen to date, it looks like we’ll be able to do two.” Each of the five finalists will now get up to $3 million to pursue a more detailed proposal for the final selection about a year from now.
The five finalists are:
- VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR Topography and Spectroscopy) a mission to map Venus’ surface with radar;
- Psyche, a mission to explore an asteroid that could be made up almost entirely of iron and nickel;
- Lucy, which would tour five Trojan asteroids, which follow the orbit of Jupiter either ahead or behind the giant planet;
- NEOCam (Near Earth Object Camera), which aims to discover 10 times more near-Earth objects than have been discovered to date; and
- DAVINCI (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging), which would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent.
VERITAS and DAVINCI represent a vindication for Venus scientists in the United States, who have not sent a probe to the planet since the Magellan orbiter mission ended in 1994. Radar, the primary tool of VERITAS, allows scientists to see through Venus’ thick clouds. Able to map the surface at higher resolution than Magellan, the spacecraft should be able to add to the mounting evidence Venus’s surface is dotted with active volcanoes. The mission is led by Suzanne Smrekar, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.