NASA aims for 2 new missions to Venus to learn about ‘lost habitable’ world

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For the past few years, Mars has been having its moment. 

The planet has captured the fascination of Hollywood, the US and China both landed rovers on its surface and Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX, recently announced that his company hopes to launch its next-generation rocket in 2022 from a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. His sights are set on Mars.

Other planets have become something of an afterthought. When was the last time you caught yourself thinking about Neptune? Pluto had the worst fate of all and in 2006 was downgraded to dwarf planet.

But NASA on Wednesday announced its intention to bring more attention to Venus, the second planet from the sun. The planet–which is one of the brightest objects in the night sky–  is considered an “inferno-like world” but may have been “the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate.”

NASA said in a statement that the two missions to the planet will be part of its Discovery Program and will award about $500 million per mission for development. The voyages are expected to take place at the end of the decade.

One will study the planet’s atmosphere, which could shed light on whether the planet once had an ocean. The other mission will study the planet’s surface in hopes to learn “why it developed so differently than Earth.”

The US and the former Soviet Union sent multiple spacecraft to Venus in the early days of space exploration. NASA’s Mariner 2 performed the first successful flyby in 1962 and the Soviets’ Venera 7 made the first successful landing in 1970.

In 1989, NASA used a space shuttle to send its Magellan spacecraft into orbit around Venus.

The European Space Agency put a spacecraft around Venus in 2006.

“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,” Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery Program scientist, said in the statement. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

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