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NASA Selects 2 Missions to Study ‘Lost Habitable’ World of Venus

NASA has selected two new missions to Venus, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. Part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours – and may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate.

These investigations are the final selections from four mission concepts NASA picked in February 2020 as part of the agency’s Discovery 2019 competition. Following a competitive, peer-review process, the two missions were chosen based on their potential scientific value and the feasibility of their development plans. The project teams will now work to finalize their requirements, designs, and development plans.

NASA is awarding approximately $500 million per mission for development. Each is expected to launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe.

Venus 2 missions NASA
NASA Selects 2 Missions to Study ‘Lost Habitable’ World of Venus. Venus hides a wealth of information that could help us better understand Earth and exoplanets. NASA’s JPL is designing mission concepts to survive the planet’s extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressure. This image is a composite of data from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The selected missions are:

 

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging)

DAVINCI+ will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved, as well as determine whether the planet ever had an ocean. The mission consists of a descent sphere that will plunge through the planet’s thick atmosphere, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere is a runaway hothouse compared the Earth’s.

In addition, DAVINCI+ will return the first high resolution pictures of the unique geological features on Venus known as “tesserae,” which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, suggesting that Venus has plate tectonics. This would be the first U.S.-led mission to Venus’ atmosphere since 1978, and the results from DAVINCI+ could reshape our understanding of terrestrial planet formation in our solar system and beyond. James Garvin of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard provides project management.

 

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)

VERITAS will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth. Orbiting Venus with a synthetic aperture radar, VERITAS will chart surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus.

VERITAS also will map infrared emissions from Venus’ surface to map its rock type, which is largely unknown, and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is the principal investigator. JPL provides project management. The German Aerospace Center will provide the infrared mapper with the Italian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales contributing to the radar and other parts of the mission.

“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse. Our goals are profound. It is not just understanding the evolution of planets and habitability in our own solar system, but extending beyond these boundaries to exoplanets, an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”

Zurbuchen added that he expects powerful synergies across NASA’s science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope. He anticipates data from these missions will be used by the broadest possible cross section of the scientific community.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface all the way down to its very core,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

 

In addition to the two missions, NASA selected a pair of technology demonstrations to fly along with them. VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, built by JPL and funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The ultra-precise clock signal generated with this technology will ultimately help enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations.

DAVINCI+ will host the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Imaging Spectrometer (CUVIS) built by Goddard. CUVIS will make high resolution measurements of ultraviolet light using a new instrument based on freeform optics. 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.

Established in 1992, NASA’s Discovery Program has supported the development and implementation of over 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the ninth Discovery Program competition.

The concepts were chosen from proposals submitted in 2019 under NASA Announcement of Opportunity NNH19ZDA010O. The selected investigations will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the Discovery Program. The Discovery Program conducts space science investigations in the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The goals of the program are to provide frequent opportunities for principal investigator-led investigations in planetary sciences that can be accomplished under a not-to-exceed cost cap.

 

For more information about NASA’s planetary science, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/solarsystem

Press release from NASA on the 2 new missions to Venus.

NASA’s MAVEN Observes Martian Night Sky Pulsing in Ultraviolet Light

Vast areas of the Martian night sky pulse in ultraviolet light, according to images from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The results are being used to illuminate complex circulation patterns in the Martian atmosphere.

Vast areas of the Martian night sky pulse in ultraviolet light, according to images from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The results are being used to illuminate complex circulation patterns in the Martian atmosphere.

The MAVEN team was surprised to find that the atmosphere pulsed exactly three times per night, and only during Mars’ spring and fall. The new data also revealed unexpected waves and spirals over the winter poles, while also confirming the Mars Express spacecraft results that this nightglow was brightest over the winter polar regions.

Martian night ultraviolet nightglow
This is an image of the ultraviolet “nightglow” in the Martian atmosphere. Green and white false colors represent the intensity of ultraviolet light, with white being the brightest. The nightglow was measured at about 70 kilometers (approximately 40 miles) altitude by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph instrument on NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. A simulated view of the Mars globe is added digitally for context. The image shows an intense brightening in Mars’ nightside atmosphere. The brightenings occur regularly after sunset on Martian evenings during fall and winter seasons, and fade by midnight. The brightening is caused by increased downwards winds which enhance the chemical reaction creating nitric oxide which causes the glow.
Credits: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

“MAVEN’s images offer our first global insights into atmospheric motions in Mars’ middle atmosphere, a critical region where air currents carry gases between the lowest and highest layers,” said Nick Schneider of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), Boulder, Colorado. The brightenings occur where vertical winds carry gases down to regions of higher density, speeding up the chemical reactions that create nitric oxide and power the ultraviolet glow. Schneider is instrument lead for the MAVEN Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument that made these observations, and lead author of a paper on this research appearing August 6 in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Space Physics. Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye but detectable by specialized instruments.

The diagram explains the cause of Mars’ glowing nightside atmosphere. On Mars’ dayside, molecules are torn apart by energetic solar photons. Global circulation patterns carry the atomic fragments to the nightside, where downward winds increase the reaction rate for the atoms to reform molecules. The downwards winds occur near the poles at some seasons and in the equatorial regions at others. The new molecules hold extra energy which they emit as ultraviolet light.
Credits: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

“The ultraviolet glow comes mostly from an altitude of about 70 kilometers (approximately 40 miles), with the brightest spot about a thousand kilometers (approximately 600 miles) across, and is as bright in the ultraviolet as Earth’s northern lights,” said Zac Milby, also of LASP. “Unfortunately, the composition of Mars’ atmosphere means that these bright spots emit no light at visible wavelengths that would allow them to be seen by future Mars astronauts. Too bad: the bright patches would intensify overhead every night after sunset, and drift across the sky at 300 kilometers per hour (about 180 miles per hour).”

The pulsations reveal the importance of planet-encircling waves in the Mars atmosphere. The number of waves and their speed indicates that Mars’ middle atmosphere is influenced by the daily pattern of solar heating and disturbances from the topography of Mars’ huge volcanic mountains. These pulsating spots are the clearest evidence that the middle atmosphere waves match those known to dominate the layers above and below.

“MAVEN’s main discoveries of atmosphere loss and climate change show the importance of these vast circulation patterns that transport atmospheric gases around the globe and from the surface to the edge of space.” said Sonal Jain, also of LASP.

Next, the team plans to look at nightglow “sideways”, instead of down from above, using data taken by IUVS looking just above the edge of the planet. This new perspective will be used to understand the vertical winds and seasonal changes even more accurately.

The Martian nightglow was first observed by the SPICAM instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. However, IUVS is a next-generation instrument better able to repeatedly map out the nightside glow, finding patterns and periodic behaviors. Many planets including Earth have nightglow, but MAVEN is the first mission to collect so many images of another planet’s nightglow.

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The research was funded by the MAVEN mission. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, and NASA Goddard manages the MAVEN project. NASA is exploring our Solar System and beyond, uncovering worlds, stars, and cosmic mysteries near and far with our powerful fleet of space and ground-based missions.

 

 

 

Press release from NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center.

Hubble Sees Summertime on Saturn

Saturn is truly the lord of the rings in this latest snapshot from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, taken on July 4, 2020, when the opulent giant world was 839 million miles from Earth. This new Saturn image was taken during summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Saturn summertime Hubble summer
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Saturn on July 4, 2020. Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom. This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms.
Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

 

Hubble found a number of small atmospheric storms. These are transient features that appear to come and go with each yearly Hubble observation. The banding in the northern hemisphere remains pronounced as seen in Hubble’s 2019 observations, with several bands slightly changing color from year to year. The ringed planet’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with traces of ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrocarbons that give it a yellowish-brown color.

Hubble photographed a slight reddish haze over the northern hemisphere in this color composite. This may be due to heating from increased sunlight, which could either change the atmospheric circulation or perhaps remove ices from aerosols in the atmosphere. Another theory is that the increased sunlight in the summer months is changing the amounts of photochemical haze produced. “It’s amazing that even over a few years, we’re seeing seasonal changes on Saturn,” said lead investigator Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Conversely, the just-now-visible south pole has a blue hue, reflecting changes in Saturn’s winter hemisphere.

Hubble’s sharp view resolves the finely etched concentric ring structure. The rings are mostly made of pieces of ice, with sizes ranging from tiny grains to giant boulders. Just how and when the rings formed remains one of our solar system’s biggest mysteries. Conventional wisdom is that they are as old as the planet, over 4 billion years. But because the rings are so bright – like freshly fallen snow – a competing theory is that they may have formed during the age of the dinosaurs. Many astronomers agree that there is no satisfactory theory that explains how rings could have formed within just the past few hundred million years. “However, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft measurements of tiny grains raining into Saturn’s atmosphere suggest the rings can only last for 300 million more years, which is one of the arguments for a young age of the ring system,” said team member Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley.

Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom.

This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

 

 

Press release from NASA, on Hubble capturing summertime data from Saturn.