NASA scientists prepare to paint the most detailed picture yet of Venus’ atmosphere when the aptly named DAVINCI mission – or Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging – drops a probe to the surface of the planet.
As the DAVINCI mission’s 3-foot-wide (0.9 meter) descent sphere makes its one-way parachute trip to Venus‘ surface in the early 2030s, it will carry the Venus Atmospheric Structure Investigation (VASI) instrument along with five other instruments. VASI will collect data regarding the temperature, pressure and winds of Atmosphere of Venus as he makes his hellish descent and enters the planet’s crushing lower atmosphere.
“There are actually big puzzles about Venus’ deep atmosphere,” said Ralph Lorenz, chief scientist of the VASI instrument and planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland. statement. “We don’t have all the pieces of this puzzle and DAVINCI will provide those pieces to us by measuring the composition along with the pressure and temperature as we get closer to the surface.”
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Venus’ dense atmosphere hides several mysteries, including its structure, as well as how the planet’s many volcanoes have interacted with it over the eons. One of the main objectives of scientists in 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 detect this through measurements of atmospheric temperatures, winds and composition.
Solving these puzzles could give scientists an idea of what continued volcanic activity could mean for our own planet’s atmosphere.
“The long-term habitability of our planet, as we understand it, relies on the coupling of interior and atmosphere,” Lorenz said. “The long-term abundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which we really rely on to keep the Earth’s surface warm enough to be habitable over geologic time, relies on volcanoes.”
A one-way ticket to Venus
One of the main challenges associated with studying Venus has been the extreme conditions of the planet, which exhibits surface pressures up to 90 times greater than those of Earth and surface temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit (460 degrees Celsius).
Additionally, before a probe can reach the planet’s surface from orbit, it must first pass through clouds of sulfuric acid in Venus’ upper atmosphere. (These clouds also make Venus difficult to observe from Earth; reflective and shiny, they obscure our view of the planet’s surface.)
These threats mean that DAVINCI’s descent sphere systems and sensors will be enclosed in a robust submarine-like structure. But while the sphere is designed to withstand intense atmospheric pressures and is insulated to protect the sensors from intense heat near the surface of Venus, VASI’s sensors need to be exposed to the harsh conditions somewhat to do their job.
“Venus is difficult. The conditions, particularly low in the atmosphere, make it very difficult to design the instrumentation and the systems to support the instrumentation,” Lorenz said. “All of this must either be protected from the environment or somehow built to tolerate it.”
As the sphere descends through Venus’ atmosphere, VASI will measure the temperature with a sensor inside a thin straw-like metal tube. When the atmosphere heats the tube, the sensor measures and records the expansion and therefore the temperature without being directly exposed to the corrosive environment.
VASI will collect atmospheric pressure readings using a silicon membrane enclosed within. One side of the membrane is exposed to the vacuum while the other side faces Venus’ atmosphere. The atmosphere pushes on the membrane, stretches it, and the extent of this stretch reveals the force of atmospheric pressure.
The instrument will measure Venusian winds with a combination of accelerometers that test changes in speed and direction and gyroscopes that measure orientation. The mission will also track changes in wind speed and direction by monitoring changes in the frequency and wavelength of radio waves.
Named after Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, DAVINCI is currently slated for launch in 2029. If it stays on schedule, the Descent Sphere will plunge into Venus’ thick atmosphere in 2031.
The fall will take about an hour. The probe isn’t expected to survive the fall, but if it does, NASA scientists are poised to get around 17 minutes of bonus science on the surface with the doomed device.
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