Brown alumni to oversee new NASA robotic missions to Venus

The space agency will send two new spacecraft to Earth’s “evil twin” in the next decade, and both Discovery Program missions will be led by Brown graduates.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As NASA embarks upon plans to send a pair of new spacecraft to peer into the thick clouds of Venus over the next decade, each of the two Discovery Program missions will be led by a Brown University graduate.  

The DAVINCI+ mission will measure the composition of Venus’ thick toxic blanket of an atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved. James Garvin, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center who earned his Ph.D. in geological sciences from Brown in 1984, will lead the mission. The other mission, VERITAS, will look beneath the clouds to study the planet’s geology and composition. That mission will be led by Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown in 1984.

Jim Head, a research professor of planetary science at Brown, has worked with both mission leaders and was a member of the VERITAS science team in its earlier stages. He says that Smrekar and Garvin are the right choices to lead these critical missions to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

“Both Sue Smrekar and Jim Garvin are passionate, energetic and incredibly creative planetary scientists, as well as steady, thoughtful leaders,” Head said. “I've had the pleasure to work extensively with both of them over the years, and I couldn't be more confident that NASA has made the right choices to lead these two missions.”

Over the years, Venus has received less attention from NASA than Earth’s other next-door neighbor, Mars. But that’s not because Venus isn’t an interesting place, Head says. Venus is a dead ringer for Earth in many ways. The two are similar in diameter, mass and gravity, and both orbit in the so-called habitable zone around the sun. But at some point, the twin planets diverged onto very different paths. While Earth’s climate is temperate and conducive to life, Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect turned it into a stifling inferno, with surface temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Understanding how and why these twins wound up with such different fates is a critical question in planetary science, Head says.

“Venus is the most Earth-like planet but is so different in so many ways,” he said. “If we don’t understand Venus, we surely cannot fully understand the missing chapters in Earth’s history, and why the atmospheres are so different. Could the hot, inhospitable Venus we see today be where the Earth is heading in the future?” 

These two missions should shed light on that question and others. DAVINCI+ will use a descent sphere to dip into the Venusian clouds and measure concentrations of noble gases and other elements in the atmosphere. It will also snap the first high-resolution pictures of Venus’ “tesserae,” odd geological features that suggest the planet may have had something like Earth’s plate tectonics. VERITAS, meanwhile, will use radar to map elevation and surface features across much of the planet. That mapping will help to determine if Venus is volcanically active and whether that volcanism is contributing water vapor to the atmosphere. Using an infrared spectrometer, VERITAS will also look at surface rock composition, which remains largely unknown.

Both missions are part of NASA’s Discovery Program and were selected through a competitive process. Both are expected to launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe. 

Head worked with the VERITAS mission during much of the selection process, but recently stepped aside to make room for younger scientists to join the team, he said. In addition to Smrekar, three members of the current VERITAS team are Brown Ph.D. graduates: Jennifer Whitten, Caleb Fassett and Lauren Jozwiak. Smrekar is a geophysicist who currently serves as deputy principal investigator for NASA’s InSIGHT mission to Mars, and was deputy project scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. Garvin is a veteran planetary scientist who has worked on numerous NASA missions, and served as the agency’s chief scientist. Brown graduates Noam Izenberg and Mike Ravine work with Garvin on DAVINCI+. Martha Gilmore, a 1997 Ph.D. graduate, serves on both mission teams.

Brown has had strong presence in space exploration over the years, Head says, and the leadership of Brown alumni in these new missions is the latest example.

“Starting with Professor Tim Mutch in the 1960's, Brown's robust planetary geoscience research and teaching program has prepared generations of undergraduates and graduates for leadership and partnership roles in NASA and international exploration missions, including those of the European Space Agency, India, Israel, the Soviet Union and Russia,” Head said. “Brown graduates have included two NASA Chief Scientists and two NASA Astronauts, one of whom, Jessica Meir, is a candidate to explore the Moon in the Artemis Program.”

It’s been 30 years since NASA’s last mission to Venus, and Head says he’s thrilled that the agency has decided it’s time to go back. The data returned by these two missions will shed critical light not only on Venus, but on Earth as well, he says.

“When we explore the solar system, we’re doing comparative planetology,” Head said. “Everything we learn about the other terrestrial planets helps us to understand our own home, and answer critical questions about how our world came to be and how it will evolve in the future.”