University of Michigan partners with NASA to study Venus in unprecedented new mission

The University of Michigan has visited just about every planet that circles our sun.

Its partnership with NASA has taken technology that the school's Space Physics Research Laboratory has developed to the orbits and surfaces of gas giants and terrestrial planets. However, their latest endeavor could be their most challenging yet: building a contraption that can survive the hottest planet in the system

NASA wants to study the atmosphere of Venus. The SPRL's mission is to outfit extremely delicate monitoring equipment in even more resilient protective housing. It'll need to withstand the turbulent journey through space before entering temperatures that rise as high as 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

The task, as Director Patrick McNally puts it, is to build "really good electronics that can do incredible things in the harshest environments."

"The first thing it needs to do is survive a rocket launch," he said. "That comes with a lot of vibration."

The equipment being transported is called a mass spectrometer, which measures particles on the molecular level and helps scientists identify the presence and abundance of elements. Surviving the launch means withstanding up to 14Gs of acceleration. 

The equipment will also need to travel two years in freezing-cold space, arrive at its destination with enough battery power before plunging into the planet's atmosphere and collect data, which will need to be relayed back to Earth before it crashes on the surface. 

"There's a challenge for everything with this kind of work," McNally said. 

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UM's scientists will need to be as accurate as possible since the window for collecting data is tiny compared to the length of time it'll take to get there. By the time scientists get their first images from the experiment, the probe will have already hit the surface.

"The whole mission really boils down to one hour in June of 2031 when we do that freefall," said Matt Garrison, a payload systems engineer with NASA. 

If all goes according to plan, data from the DAVINCI mission will help tell the history of Venus and whether it was ever habitable or wet like Earth is. The rocket will launch in 2029. 

Venus is sometimes considered Earth's sister planet due to their proximity and similarities they share. Despite the parallels, scientists still have little idea of what the surface looks like.  

"Venus is hard to study because you can't put a rover on the surface because it's not going to survive that," Garrison said. "It's got these thick clouds, so it's really hard to see from orbit."

"So instead, we're taking the science instruments from the Curiosity Rover - their cameras, their chemistry labs, and their sensors - and we're packaging them up in a 500-pound three-foot diameter titanium ball and we're sending it skydiving."

Scientists will do most of their data collection during that period as it's falling through the atmosphere - first while in free-fall and then after a parachute is deployed. It will smack into the surface at about 30 mph.

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Garrison says they'll be looking at what the atmosphere is made of, the composition of the surface, as well as its terrain. Along with the mass spectrometer measuring molecules, there will also be a camera that's pointed down, which will give an unprecedented view into the planet.

For McNally's team to pull off their side of the experiment, they'll recreate the same conditions the probe is expected to experience in space while on Earth. That means building equipment that can withstand the vibrations of the rocket launch, the pull of gravity as it leaves Earth, and the extreme heat and cold along the way.

And that's not even the hard part since it'll need to actually turn on, analyze the atmosphere, then send that data back. 

"There has to be extreme reliability. It might take three years to get there, but when it does it has to make measurements," McNally said. "It needs to be able to turn on and work without a doubt. There's no repair man in space."

The SPRL has partnered with dozens of missions to space. It's been a part of rovers on Mars, probes to Jupiter, and eventually, a planned mission to a moon of Saturn called Titan, which has its own atmosphere.