NASA Orders Up a Double Shot of Venus Missions Amid Questions About Life

Venus
Venus' surface features are revealed in an image based on data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s planetary science program is making a big bet on Venus, after decades of putting its chips on Mars in the search for hints of past or present life out there in the solar system.

The bet comes in the form of a double dose of development funding for Discovery Program missions, amounting to as much as $1 billion. Both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were selected from a field of four finalists in a competitive process — leaving behind missions aimed at studying Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.

“These two sister missions are both aimed to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said June 2 in his first “State of NASA” address. “They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

Lessons from Venus, which underwent a runaway greenhouse effect early in its existence, could improve scientists’ understanding of our own planet’s changing climate. The missions could also address one of the biggest questions about the second rock from the Sun: whether life could exist in the upper reaches of its cloud layer.

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Record-Setting Astronaut Peggy Whitson Will Command Private Space Mission

Peggy Whitson
Astronaut Peggy Whitson spends time in the International Space Station's Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Doctors are interested in how long periods of low gravitation change an astronaut's brain. (NASA Photo)

Astronaut Peggy Whitson already has her name in the history books, but now there’s a new entry to add: first woman named to head up a privately funded space mission.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, in 2017). She holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space (665 days) as well as the world record for most spacewalks by a woman (10).

Her new claim to fame comes courtesy of Texas-based Axiom Space, which announced on May 25 that Whitson will be the commander of the company’s second orbital mission for private astronauts. The mission known as Ax-2 would follow up on Ax-1, due to visit the International Space Station as early as January.

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Virgin Galactic Reaches the Space Frontier Over New Mexico for the First Time

SpaceShipTwo over New Mexico
VSS Unity's shiny wings are "feathered" for its test flight over New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.

The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

“Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third U.S. state to launch humans to space,” after Florida and California, Virgin Galactic said in a post-mission press release.

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Pictures From China’s Mars Rover Fuel NASA Chief’s Funding Pitch to Congress

China's Zhurong rover on Mars
An image from China's Zhurong rover shows spacecraft hardware in the foreground and Martian terrain in the background. (Credit: CNSA)

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released May 19, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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Axiom Space Reveals the Crew for Its First Space Odyssey in 2022 (Sorry, Tom Cruise)

Ax-1 mission crew
Michael Lopez-Alegria, Mark Pathy, Larry Connor and Eylan Stibbe will visit the International Space Station. (Axiom Space Photo)

Axiom Space’s first privately funded trip to the International Space Station will be as notable for who’s not on the crew as for who is.

Sorry, Tom Cruise: Your filmed-in-space movie will have to wait.

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With Funding From Jeff Bezos, MethaneSAT Picks Elon Musk’s SpaceX for 2022 Launch

Illustration: MethaneSAT in orbit
An artist's conception shows MethaneSAT in orbit. (MethaneSAT Illustration)

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

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White House Encourages NASA to Work on Space-Based Nuclear Power and Propulsion Systems

Nuclear-powered transit habitat
An artist's conception shows a Mars transit habitat with a nuclear propulsion system. Credit: NASA

In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump has issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.

Space Policy Directive 6, released on December 16th, calls on NASA and other federal agencies to advance the development of in-space nuclear propulsion systems as well as a nuclear fission power system on the Moon.

“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a White House news release. “The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely and sustainably in space.”

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China’s Chang’e-5 Probe Drops Off Moon Samples at the Climax of a Historic Mission

Chang'e-5 capsule
Chang'e-5's soot-streaked sample return capsule sits amid the snows of Inner Mongolia with a Chinese flag set up nearby. (Image via CCTV)

A Chinese probe has delivered the first samples to be collected from the Moon in more than 40 years, and its mission isn’t done yet.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule floated down to the snowy plains of Inner Mongolia, capping an odyssey that began less than a month ago with the launch of a nine-ton spacecraft from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center.

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SpaceShipTwo’s First Powered Test Flight Since Move to New Mexico Fizzles Out

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic's mothership, WhiteKnightTwo Eve, carries SpaceShipTwo Unity into the air from New Mexico's Spaceport America for a flight test. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.

The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls. Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.

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Chinese Spacecraft Dock in Lunar Orbit for Transfer of Moon Samples – Next Stop, Earth!

Chang'e-5's orbiter approaches the lunar ascent vehicle for docking. (CLEP / CNSA Photo)

Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.

The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time December 6th (2142 UTC December 5th), the China National Space Administration reported.

Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.

If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around December 16th, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.

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