The four finalists in the Discovery Program will dispute the agency's funding to unravel the mysteries of the Solar System.
By Bruno Carbinatto
18 Feb 2020, 20h24 – Published on 18 Feb 2020, 20h17
On February 13, NASA announced the four final projects for its Discovery Program, which finances low-cost missions with the aim of unraveling the mysteries of the Solar System. In this edition, the selected ones want to investigate our neighbor Venus, besides the moons Io, from Jupiter, and Triton, from Neptune.
Since 1992, the Discovery Program has been developing projects that seek to study themes that are not on the calendar of the agency's main studies. Candidates must be “fast” and “cheap” missions (at least by NASA's astronomical standards) and undergo a rigorous selection process. In total, 12 projects have already been put in place – among them, the InSight spacecraft, which landed on the surface of Mars in 2018 and has been studying the Red Planet ever since.
The finalists for the new edition were selected from dozens of projects submitted in 2019. Now, each team will receive US $ 3 million to develop their ideals until next year, when up to two winners will be chosen to leave the role.
Two of the four chosen missions have the same target: Venus. The planet is close to Earth and is relatively close, but we still know very little about it. NASA only sent missions to study Venus twice in history – and the most recent was almost 30 years ago, with the Magellan spacecraft.
The first of the new missions targeting Venus is DAVINCI +, which wants to analyze the chemical composition of the planet's dense atmosphere. The objective is to understand how it was formed and developed, in addition to trying to find out if the planet already had an ocean in the past or, if there is volcanism activity today.
The other is VERITAS, which wants to map the surface of the rocky planet to understand why it developed so differently from Earth. Venus is sometimes considered a brother of our planet, as both are similar in size, but other characteristics differ considerably.
Venus-focused missions focus on understanding the planet's past and development process in some way – and that's not for nothing. Previous studies indicate that the planet already had stable temperatures and liquid water on its surface, but something along the way changed the planet's course. Today, it has an atmosphere 90 times thicker than Earth, formed basically by carbon dioxide (CO2) and clouds of sulfuric acid, with temperatures reaching 460º C. Not friendly.
The other two missions do not want to study any nearby planet, but rather their moons. The “Io Volcano Observer” project aims to understand the volcanism of Io, a large Jupiter satellite known to be the object with the highest volcanic activity in the entire Solar System. The satellite has already been sighted by other NASA missions, and the number and strength of the eruptions observed have surprised. However, no close analysis has been done to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon.
Finally, the last project aims to unravel the mysteries of Triton, Neptune's largest moon. The satellite had already been spotted quickly by the Voyager 2 mission when it passed through the planet, but its details are still unclear. Basically, it is known that the star is frozen, and emits nitrogen and methane from its surface. These substances, when cooled, fall back to the moon in the form of pink dust. In addition, astronomers know that the satellite is relatively new in our stellar neighborhood, and that it can hide an ocean of liquid water inside it.