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Journey to Venus

Season 1Aug 23, 2021

Let’s go to Venus! This year, two NASA missions were chosen to explore Earth’s “twin” planet, Venus. But with extreme temperatures and toxic clouds, these missions have to prepare for a difficult journey. Join Venus experts Jim Garvin, Sue Smrekar, and Giada Arney on a tour of Earth’s “twisted sister”.

NASA's Curious Universe

NASA’s Curious Universe

Season 3, Episode 7: “Journey to Venus”

Tentative Release Date: Monday, August 23

Estimated Run Time: 22:37

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers on a new adventure each week — all you need is your curiosity. Fly over the Antarctic tundra, explore faraway styrofoam planets, and journey deep into our solar system. First-time space explorers welcome.

About the Episode

Let’s go to Venus! This year, two NASA missions were chosen to explore Earth’s “twin” planet, Venus. But with extreme temperatures and toxic clouds, these missions have to prepare for a difficult journey. Join Venus experts Jim Garvin, Sue Smrekar, and Giada Arney on a tour of Earth’s “twisted sister”.



NASA's Curious Universe

[Song: Seven Wonders Instrumental by Blythe Joustra]

Jim Garvin:We live on Earth, right? The ocean world, trees, you know, condominiums. The closest planet next door is the planet known as Venus, the “Morning Star” very often in literature. We can see her, she’s the second brightest thing in the sky other than the moon. It gives you a sense that we’re not alone in our little solar system.

Jim Garvin:So what is Venus? Venus ought to be a lot like us. She’s in just the right neighborhood. And yet she isn’t. So something changed.

Jim Garvin: Understanding that is important to understanding our own destiny. Because as we look beyond our solar system and start to see worlds that we hope are like us, they may be more like Venus. And so that may tell us about how planets change their life histories. So we need Venus as a clue to our destiny, and to read the records beyond our solar system.

[Theme song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide!

HOST PADI BOYD: Venus is the second planet from the Sun in our solar system. It’s sometimes called Earth’s twin because it’s similar in size and density, but it is currently far too hot on its surface to support life as we know it or liquid water.

HOST PADI BOYD: In fact, Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system, with a thick, toxic atmosphere. And while those characteristics mean it’s an unlikely candidate for life now, scientists think Venus might have been a lot more like Earth many, many years ago.

[Song: The Land I Once Knew Main Track by Bristow McKenzie]

HOST PADI BOYD: In an exhilarating announcement earlier this year, two NASA missions were selected to fly to Venus in the next decade, called DAVINCI and VERITAS. These missions will allow scientists to learn more about what this strange and in-hospitable planet is like now…and if it was similar to Earth in the past, which could tell us more about our future.

HOST PADI BOYD: So let’s go to Venus!

[Song: Darwin’s Extraordinary Journey Instrumental by Dury]

HOST PADI BOYD: We’ll be following Jim Garvin, Principal Investigator of the DAVINCI mission, as he takes us through the atmosphere and to the surface of our sibling planet.

Jim Garvin:So Venus is a rocky planet. So it has a solid surface. It’s about the size of Earth, 10% less in size. It has 450 million square kilometers of landscape. But it also has a massive atmosphere. And the Venus atmosphere is like no other in the solar system. Because it’s dense, massive, super-hot near the surface, like hotter than your oven. The surface temperature? 950 Fahrenheit in most places. Maybe 900 at the top of the biggest mountains.

Jim Garvin:Big clouds, billowing clouds extend for miles. At one point, the clouds will get a little nasty. They’ll be made of, of stuff we would not want to breathe, sulfuric acid and other caustic chemicals that we use to clean things on Earth, well they’re in the clouds of Venus.

[[Acid burning sound]]

Jim Garvin:We’ll come out of the clouds into the hazes and below us will be the landscapes of Venus. Rolling plains we’d have in the oceans, presence of mountains as tall as Mount Everest, valleys, ridges, volcanoes, things we’ve never seen before, new landscape types we do not have on Earth.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you were able to breathe in the atmosphere of Venus, it might smell like rotten eggs! Yuck.

HOST PADI BOYD: Of course, you’d have to withstand the intense heat, pressure, and toxic fumes in order to get a good whiff.

Jim Garvin: And as we’re descending, the surface pressure and temperature is going to be getting extreme, like being half a mile deep in the ocean, but we’re in a gas. But that gas is behaving more like water than like a regular gas. So it sloshes around.

HOST PADI BOYD: The carbon dioxide in the deepest part of Venus’ atmosphere is what’s known as a supercritical fluid. It’s a state between a gas and a liquid.

HOST PADI BOYD: Not only would that CO2 be difficult to walk around in, it’s also a key ingredient of why Venus is so hot. Heat from the sun gets trapped in the planet’s dense atmosphere, a condition known as the greenhouse effect.

[Song: Growing Idea Main Track by Davoli]

Jim Garvin: And so that’s the Venus we see. She’s telling us a story, but her books are a little harder to read.

Sue Smrekar: Venus is this incredible cosmic accident. No two bodies are more similar in our solar system than Venus and Earth. This gives us a great opportunity to try out any theory of how things work. We can take those theories and apply them to Venus. And we learn something.

HOST PADI BOYD: Now that we’ve traveled through the atmosphere, the next stop on our grand tour of Venus is the rocky surface of the planet!

Sue Smrekar: My name is Sue Smrekar, I’m the principal investigator for the VERITAS mission. I’m a Venus planetary geophysicist.

Sue Smrekar: Venus is just an incredibly complicated planet, which has so many similarities to the Earth. You know, one really big and perhaps underappreciated similarity is the age of its surface. If we look at the surface of Mercury or Mars, they’re covered with impact craters. That means those surfaces have been around for billions of years. So Venus, it only has about 1000 impact craters. If you account for the surface area of the ocean, Earth has about the same number. That makes it a place where we expect geologic processes to still be active. It really gives us a great laboratory to study active geology.

HOST PADI BOYD: The lack of craters on Venus, and on Earth, shows us they are both planets with relatively young surfaces. This means there are active processes on Venus, like quakes and volcanism, reshaping the surface. And this is a process scientists are eager to learn more about

[Song: Mysterious Black Cloud Underscore by Ravel Chapuis]

Sue Smrekar:Most of the planet’s surface is covered in volcanic features, many of which look like those we find here on Earth. But there are also crazy features. For example, channels, which we think are formed by lava flow eroding the surface. But those channels go for literally a thousand miles, and are only like a mile wide.

HOST PADI BOYD: Venus is one of our closest neighbors in the universe, so it makes sense that we would want to learn more! There have already been several missions to Venus, but because of the harsh nature of its atmosphere, they could only tell us so much.

Sue Smrekar:In the dawn of the space age, Venus was the “it” planet. There was just spacecraft after spacecraft heading to Venus, some made it, some failed. But it was the planet that we thought had swamps and dense vegetation and exciting aliens as captured in sci-fi.

Sue Smrekar:It was actually the place where the first robotic spacecraft flew by another planet.

Jim Garvin:Those missions, the United States Mission Pioneer Venus, and the Soviet missions, Venera, and Vega, they visited the atmosphere and surface with technologies largely from the 1970s. And just think back to the 70s. Did we have cell phones? Nope. Did we have personal computers? Nipp. Electric cars? Nope. Those technologies showed us the Venus we see today, a limited picture of a masterpiece unfinished, because Venus is hard.

HOST PADI BOYD: The last US mission to Venus was the Magellan mission, which reached Venus orbit in 1990 and operated until 1994. Jim and his team proposed going back to Venus with the DAVINCI mission four times before it was selected in 2021, alongside the VERITAS mission.

[Song: A New World Main Track by Bristow McKenzie]

Jim Garvin:So after many years, actually, a decade or so of trying, we’re so privileged to have been selected to fly a mission named for Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance person who was able to stitch science, technology, engineering, and dreams and curiosity all together. We would ideally launch in 2029 and fly by Venus twice in 2030, before we take the plunge in June of 2031. And our plunge will take an hour through the entire atmosphere. And then, if we’re fortunate, and lucky and Venus cooperates, we may get a little data as we sit on the surface.

Giada Arney:I’m Giada Arney, and I’m one of the deputy PIs of the DAVINCI mission to Venus.

[Song: Mellow Shores Underscore by Edwards Tschuggnall]

HOST PADI BOYD: Giada, alongside Jim, is part of the team conceptualizing, preparing, and eventually launching the probe to Venus! It will consist of two parts. Both will collect new and exciting information that will help us better understand this mysterious planet.

Giada Arney:It’s a really exciting concept. There’s a spacecraft and the spacecraft is attached to a descent probe. The spacecraft will do two flybys of Venus on the way there. During those flybys, the spacecraft is going to study Venus in ultraviolet light, and also near infrared light. These are colors of light that our eyes can’t see, but they provide information about the clouds of Venus, and also the surface of Venus.

Giada Arney:Two years after launch, we’re going to drop a descent probe into Venus’ atmosphere that will be released from the spacecraft. Our descent sphere is a titanium sphere. It’s about the size of maybe a small beanbag chair or a large beach ball. So not enormous, but not super tiny either. The descent probe will take about an hour to fall through Venus’ thick atmosphere. During its descent, it’s going to make thousands of measurements of the atmospheric composition. And we really want to understand the composition of Venus’ atmosphere better because we want to look for information about what Venus might have been like in the past.

HOST PADI BOYD: The name DAVINCI is an acronym, and the “N” stands for Noble gases. Studying the noble gases of Venus’ atmosphere in particular, will help give scientists a peek at the history of how Venus became what it is today.

Giada Arney:Noble gases are unreactive gases. Because they don’t react with things they kind of stick around and they could record a long history of processes that could have occurred on Venus. So from those and other gases, we want to learn things like the volcanic history of Venus, how Venus got its water, how much water Venus may have had, how it may have lost that water, etc, etc. All these interesting questions about Venus’ origin and evolution.

HOST PADI BOYD: DAVINCI’s descent probe will make a harrowing journey through Venus’ thick, cloudy atmosphere and down to the surface. It will be outfitted with state-of-the-art protective materials to keep it as safe as possible, but scientists don’t have expectations that it will be able to survive the harsh conditions very long.

[Song: Personal Best Underscore by Jama]

Giada Arney:Once we clear the bottom of the clouds, which will happen at about 38 kilometers in altitude, we’ll actually be able to have a crystal clear view of the surface. Then we have a camera at the bottom of our descent sphere, and that camera is gonna peer downward through a sapphire window, and it’s going to look at the surface from above, get a bird’s eye view of the terrain. Once it hits the surface, we don’t know if it’ll survive, it is not required to survive. If it does, we might be able to collect a few more minutes of data but that will be a bonus and we’re not expecting or planning for that at the moment.

HOST PADI BOYD: While DAVINCI will mostly focus on studying the atmosphere, the other Venus mission, VERITAS, will orbit the planet, taking data to study the surface and geology. Evidence suggests that long ago, Venus hosted large, shallow oceans with a stable climate for at least a couple billion years.

HOST PADI BOYD: Measuring features of both the atmosphere and the surface can tell scientists whether or not water used to be present on Venus and how much it influenced it’s topography and climate.

[Song: Riverseide Romance Underscore by Joseph Thompson]

HOST PADI BOYD: Scientists like Sue are excited to see how much Earth and Venus have in common, especially when it comes to questions of planet formation, geological activity, and the presence of water.

Sue Smrekar:VERITAS will investigate the global geologic evolution of Venus and answer some of the key questions that we need to understand about geologic evolution to get at this question of how planets become habitable, how they lose their habitability.

Sue Smrekar: We have an orbiter and it has really just two instruments. But those instruments take a variety of different datasets. Venus has this intense cloud layer, we chose our instruments to be able to see through that cloud layer.

HOST PADI BOYD: VERITAS will stay above Venus’s atmosphere, orbiting the planet and collecting important information from above.

Sue Smrekar: We have our radar, which gives us a global topographic map. So we’re gonna take radar data at one time, and then come around about eight months later, and take another radar image, and we can tell if those surfaces captured have deformed. And then the other thing that we’re going to do for the very first time is provide global maps of rock type.

Sue Smrekar:VERITAS is very much focused on acquiring the global datasets. And DAVINCI is focused on atmospheric chemistry. And so they’re kind of getting the vertical dimension, if you will, whereas we’re getting the horizontal dimension. But these two data sets will be just incredibly complimentary.

HOST PADI BOYD: Scientists are looking at Venus to answer questions about Earth’s future. Venus is currently experiencing what planetary and climate scientists call a “runaway greenhouse effect”. This is when heat gets trapped within the atmosphere without any means to cool the planet down.

HOST PADI BOYD: Earth’s oceans are a key ingredient for cooling our planet down, so if Venus used to have oceans, what happened to them? And what can we learn about the future of our planet as it heats up from global climate change?

Jim Garvin:So the Venus we see now is a puzzle piece. In the 2020s, we have the glimmers of what might have been: an oceanic world that lost its oceans, perhaps after billions of years of oceanic, beautiful, habitable world environments. Something went awry, something changed it to be the world of today, those things and those questions are important, because they tell us what can go wrong. How climates and atmosphere climate systems change will be relevant to back-casting the climate history of Earth and forecasting the eventual climate. What happens if the oceans of Earth were to super-evaporate away? What would that look like? What would that do to our atmosphere? How would that evolve?

HOST PADI BOYD: Exploring and learning more about Venus doesn’t just tell us more about the second planet from the sun.

[Song: Light At The End 4 Underscore by Goodman Krause]

HOST PADI BOYD: It can also help us learn what Earth may be like far in the future, or even what we might find on an exoplanet orbiting a star thousands of lightyears away.

HOST PADI BOYD: For planetary scientists, it’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a mission you propose be accepted to fly out of our atmosphere, into space and then on to another world.

HOST PADI BOYD: For Sue, Jim, and Giada, the day they were given the green light for the projects they’ve poured so much work into…is certainly one to remember.

Sue Smrekar:Well, I was standing in my kitchen. My cell phone coverage is not very good. So I wanted to get really close to my, my modem, my WiFi signal. And the call was supposed to come in between 5 and 6 am here on the west coast. Of course, I’d woken up at three o’clock because I couldn’t sleep. So, you know, I’d been doing a lot of pacing and contemplating.

[Song: Sunrise Instrumental by Friedrich Johnson Tschallener]

Sue Smrekar: I had a big pot of coffee going, I was texting a few team members that I knew were also up, just waiting for the news. Hoping that this time, our lucky number would come up.

Jim Garvin:So we got a warning from NASA headquarters, the bosses that we work for, you may be getting a call about decisions from the head of all science at NASA is the Associate Administrator in the Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Zurbuchen. And so we thought, Okay, well, there’s four brilliant missions. They’re all perfectly wonderful and should be selected. I was sitting at home, my dog underfoot, my dog’s name is Glenda, sitting there. I told my wife, ‘I’m nervous’. I told my kids. And they said, ‘Okay, we’ll leave you alone, dad’. And so at 8:05, the phone rings and it’s the big boss, Dr. Zurbuchen, and he said, ‘Well, Jim, I have news for you. You’re going to Venus’. And like I had a “Oh,” a huge sigh of relief. I thought it was bad news.

Giada Arney:So I heard about the selection for DAVINCI the morning of the announcement that the NASA Administrator made. And I was sworn to secrecy. So you know, it was exciting, but it was also like sitting on pins and needles waiting for the announcement to be made to the whole world so that we could actually, you know, celebrate as a team.

Giada Arney:It’s pretty wild to think about the fact that I’ve got this mission to work on, and it’s going to be something that I’m going to be working on for about the next decade. So it’s, it’s a little bit scary. But it’s also exciting to think about that. I haven’t worked on a spaceflight mission before. So it’s hard to know, for me, as someone who’s new to this, what my job is going to look like and how it’s going to evolve as the mission continues to evolve and mature as the years go by. But it will be exciting to find out what that looks like.

HOST PADI BOYD: Sending these missions to Venus isn’t just exciting for the DAVINCI and VERITAS teams, but for scientists across the world who will be able to learn and discover new, exciting things about our solar system with brand new data.

Sue Smrekar:VERITAS is a dream come true for me. And for a hundred other people, perhaps hundreds of other people that have helped make it come to fruition over the last decade. We have our current team that has worked super hard in the last four years. But there have been people on teams in the earlier versions that also made huge contributions.

[Song: Daring to Dream Instrumental by Griffiths Rees]

Sue Smrekar:And we have international partners, you know, we’re not doing this alone. We’re going with the Italian Space Agency, the German Space Agency, the French space agency. It’s an international endeavor. And there have just been so many people who have worked literally night and day to make this happen.

Jim Garvin: So we’re going to bring the best of the tools that women and men on Earth have perfected over the last 40 years to fly by Venus, and then take the plunge into our atmosphere to read her record books which are mystical, unknown, tantalizing, but incomplete. We’re going to complete them. So all the young women and men interested in Venus will have a foundation, a legacy, so they can build the next models, the next questions, the next hypotheses. And they will be cool. Trust me.

[Song: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christina Dana and Kate Steiner. Our executive producer is Katie Atkinson. The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold, and Micheala Sosby, with support from Emma Edmund and Priya Mittal.

HOST PADI BOYD: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds.

HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Nancy Neal Jones, Ian O’Neill, and the planetary communications team.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show @NASA, and sharing NASA’s Curious Universe with a friend. Learn more about Venus and our upcoming missions by visiting

HOST PADI BOYD: Still curious about NASA? You can send us questions about this episode or a previous one and we’ll try to track down the answers! You can email a voice recording or send a written note Go for more information.

Giada Arney:And it’s also a beautiful planet, some of the photographs we have of Venus from above with the clouds, it almost looks like an artist painted brushstrokes across Venus’ surface. I’ve seen photographs of the unknown UV absorber, its got these dark markings and it’s like somebody dipped their paintbrush in dark paint and just brushed it across Venus. So it’s a really beautiful, beautiful planet.