Mount Holyoke professor part of mission to explore Venus

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, is shown in her laboratory in 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2021 8:18:38 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — On a recent morning, Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor Darby Dyar was sitting in her living room, texting back and forth anxiously with a colleague in California.

“How are you feeling, did you sleep?” she recalls asking her fellow astronomer Suzanne Smrekar. “No, I didn’t sleep either.”

The reason for their nerves? The two renowned scientists were waiting for a phone call from NASA. The federal agency was supposed to ring them at 8 a.m. — 5 a.m. California time — but kept them waiting 45 minutes for the good news that eventually did come: their proposal was selected as one of the next missions to explore the planet Venus.

Dyar said she cried and got goosebumps when she heard the news.

“I’ve been involved in three other proposals that were equally awesome and similar to this, and they all got declined,” Dyar said. So for this mission to be approved was particularly special. “NASA hasn’t had a mission to Venus for more than 30 years.”

The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission — known by the acronym VERITAS — is one of two missions that NASA chose to travel to Venus. The second planet from the sun is often described as Earth’s “twin,” and VERITAS will explore why the rocky planet, like Earth, is so different from our planet with its nearly 500-degree Celsius temperatures, extremely high air pressure and clouds of sulfuric acid obscuring the sun.

“How these ‘sister planets’ evolved so differently has been a burning scientific question for decades, and a proposed mission called VERITAS seeks to provide answers by transforming our understanding of the internal geodynamics that shaped the planet,” reads a description on NASA’s website. “The mission could lend insights into our own planet’s evolution and even help us better understand rocky planets orbiting other stars.”

Dyar is the deputy principal investigator on VERITAS, which will orbit the planet and use instruments to learn about the planet’s topography and what the surface is made of. By mapping the planet’s surface, the mission will provide insights into the geologic history history of Venus, the surface elevations of the planet and whether processes like plate tectonics and volcanoes are still active.

Dyar is in charge of the mission’s spectrometer, which the researchers will use to determine what makes up the planet’s surface.

For the past 10 years, Dyar has been working with German scientist Joern Helbert, whose lab allows researchers to make spectral measurements at the kind of temperatures on the surface of Venus. Dyar said those temperatures make it difficult to take those measurements, so researchers want to be sure they know what different materials look like under those conditions.

The project has a proposed 2026 launch, and is the culmination of a decade of work Dyar did with Smrekar and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California to develop the mission.

Dyar is well known for her research with NASA, including studies with specially preserved lunar rocks several years ago.

She noted that it is particularly special for her to be one of the researchers selected by NASA, which often chooses projects by NASA scientists or those at large research universities. The VERITAS project will provide unique opportunities for Mount Holyoke students studying with her, she said.

“It’s really amazing for the deputy scientist to be at a liberal arts college,” Dyar said. “I’m really proud to represent Mount Holyoke.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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