Student-Built, Dime-Sized Instrument Is Venus-Bound on NASA’s DAVINCI Space Probe

NASA's DAVINCI mission, which is set to launch in the late 2020s, will examine the genesis, evolution, and current status of Venus' atmosphere using a Student Collaboration Experiment that will be conceived, constructed, tested, operated, and evaluated by undergraduate and graduate students.

The DAVINCI mission (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) is set to launch in 2029 and will send a spaceship and a probe to Venus to examine the planet's many unanswered mysteries. The spacecraft will fly by Venus twice before lowering its descent probe into the planet's atmosphere, taking measurements of clouds and UV absorption on the planet's day side and heat coming from the planet's surface on the planet's night side.

The mission's probe, known as the Descent Sphere, will enter Venus' atmosphere two years after launch, swallowing and analyzing atmospheric gases while capturing photos as it descends to the planet's surface in the Alpha Regio area.

Venus's surface is entirely unsuitable to life: barren, arid, squashed beneath an atmosphere 90 times that of Earth, and burned by temperatures two times those of an oven. Was it always like this? Could Venus have ever been a livable world with liquid water seas, similar to Earth? This is only one of the numerous enigmas surrounding our enshrouded sister world. The last time NASA's Magellan spacecraft orbited Venus was 27 years ago. That was NASA's most recent voyage to Earth's sister planet, and while we've learned a lot about Venus since then, there are still a lot of mysteries regarding the planet to be answered. DAVINCI (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) is a NASA project aimed at changing that. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is responsible for this image.

The oxygen fugacity – the partial pressure of oxygen – in the deep atmosphere under Venus' clouds, including the near-surface environment, will be measured by VfOx, which will be installed on the exterior of the Descent Sphere.

Scientists will attempt for the first time to identify which minerals are more stable at the surface of Venus in the highlands and relate the creation of rocks to their recent alteration histories by studying these ground-breaking VfOx observations. VfOx will measure the quantity of oxygen existing at Venus's surface as a "fingerprint" of the current rock-atmosphere processes. The balance of oxygen in the atmosphere vs oxygen absorbed in Venus' rocks will offer information for a fresh understanding of the surface minerals in a hilly region of Venus (known as "tessera") that has never been visited by a spacecraft.

Understanding the amount of oxygen in Venus' atmosphere will be crucial in preparing for the JWST and future observatories to characterize Venus-like planets outside our solar system. The amount of oxygen in Venus' deepest atmosphere will aid scientists researching these far-flung worlds in distinguishing between oxygen created by life, such as on Earth, and oxygen produced entirely by abiotic chemical planetary processes, such as on Venus.

The device will work in the same way as an oxygen sensor in a car engine, which detects the amount of oxygen in the fuel system in relation to other fuel components. VfOx, like all of the instruments aboard the DAVINCI Descent Sphere, must be modified to withstand Venus' hostile environment. Despite the fact that temperatures on Venus's surface are high enough to melt lead, internal combustion automobile engines are considerably hotter, hence VfOx will work in a comparably colder environment. VfOx will also be made of ceramic, a material that is resistant to temperature fluctuations.

DAVINCI's Student Collaboration Experiment's driving purpose is to educate and train young scientists and engineers in planetary scientific and engineering abilities while also offering a real-world application for those talents. “We are trying to engage and encourage the next generation of planetary scientists and engineers,” says Dr. Noam Izenberg, a major research staff member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and the student collaboration lead for VfOx on DAVINCI.

Students will construct the VfOx equipment, evaluate the data it receives from Venus, and engage in science activities with the DAVINCI science team. Faculty from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University will counsel the students engaged.
One of the biggest motivations to attract a wide range of students to this project may be the excitement of being actively involved with a genuine space mission as an undergraduate.  “We want to attract more students from all backgrounds, including the less-advantaged and the less-represented,” Dr. Izenberg states.  “There will be lots of mentors across the board – on the mission and science side, and the engineering side – where students can find not just mentors of the professions that they might be looking for, but also mentors who look like them, because the DAVINCI team itself is fairly good in its own diversity.”

The student experiment will be planned and implemented in partnership with Johns Hopkins and the Applied Physics Lab. Johns Hopkins will also collaborate with Baltimore's Maryland Institution College of Arts, which has an extreme arts institute that will focus on the interface of science and art. Morgan State University in Baltimore will be a collaborator in this research, which will be coordinated by the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute in Baltimore.

The principle investigator institution for DAVINCI is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which will handle project management and scientific leadership for the mission, as well as project systems engineering to construct the probe flight system. Goddard also oversees the project's science support team and provides two of the probe's most important instruments.