Chatting with a planetary scientist is an exercise in scale. They are just as fluent in geologic timelines—you know, in the order of billions of years—as ones that operate by the second, like a NASA launch timetable.
For scientists Martha Gilmore ’91, Melissa Trainer ’00 and Amy Hofmann ’04, understanding time in this way is crucial to the success of NASA’s DAVINCI mission to Venus, which will launch in 2029.
Each woman is responsible for designing and testing key instruments that will be critical to the first U.S.-led, in-situ mission to Venus in more than 40 years.
They have less than a decade to get it right. Once DAVINCI begins its descent, the team has only one hour to collect measurements of the isotopes and noble gases in Venus’s atmosphere and to snap high-resolution photos of Venus’s surface. Within 15 minutes of landing, the titanium probe built to protect these delicate instruments will no longer be able to withstand the 900-degree heat of the planet’s surface.
Trainer has prepared for this moment since 2010, when she joined an early iteration of DAVINCI at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Now, as deputy lead for DAVINCI’s mass spectrometer, Trainer uses her background in atmospheric chemistry to ask big questions about the evolution of Venus.
“The noble gas measurements that we’re going to be able to make with DAVINCI are like these molecular fossils in the atmosphere,” says Trainer, who had the opportunity to make similar measurements as part of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission’s Curiosity Rover team.
Although the Mars missions meant scientists interested in Venus had to wait their turn, the discoveries on the Red Planet directly affected the DAVINCI team, says Trainer. “It has taken a lot of work to put together missions that could go back into Venus,” she says. “What I think really brought everything together for DAVINCI was advancing the types of instrumentation we could send. And also, just the ability to make really fast measurements.”
Gilmore, a planetary geologist who teaches at Wesleyan University, understands this mission is historic in more ways than one. Not only will she capture the first high-resolution images of Venus’s surface in the history of space exploration, but as the only Black woman on DAVINCI’s science team, she’ll also serve as a reminder to young scientists of color that working on a major mission for NASA is possible.
“Both mission teams have a lot of women in powerful positions, but that’s only recent,” says Gilmore. “We’re just starting to get to the point where there are women in the room. I think for women, over my career, it’s changed in a good way. But for people of color, it’s barely changed at all.”
Gilmore thinks it’s likely there was an ocean on Venus—a long time ago. By measuring the reflective spectra of the most ancient rocks on Venus’s surface, she will be able to determine what kind of environment the rocks formed in and whether there was water present when they formed.
“If I was an alien, and I came to our solar system four billion years ago in my spaceship, I think I would have seen Venus, Earth and Mars, all with oceans,” she says with a laugh.
With more accurate data about Venus’s atmosphere, scientists will be able to develop a clearer picture of how Venus formed and whether Earth is on a similar trajectory. Atmospheric measurements also have ramifications for studying planets outside of our solar system, says Hofmann, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.
“Learning more about Venus, which is really our sister planet, helps us understand how Earth came to be in the position that it is—and how habitability differs throughout solar systems, not just our own,” she says.
In her own words, Hofmann is both a “fresh face in planetary science” and an “equal opportunity planetary scientist.” (Unlike her peers, Hofmann doesn’t have a favorite planetary body to study.) After designing her own major at F&M by combining environmental studies, geoscience, anthropology and English, Hofmann arrived at CalTech, where she earned her doctorate in geochemistry. That distinctive background made her perfect for a position at the Jet Propulsion Lab—and for DAVINCI, which needed someone with her expertise in stable isotopes to understand whether Venus, like Earth and Mars, once had an ocean.
For Gilmore, the project presents an exciting challenge in her career as a planetary geologist and as a trailblazer.
“I have 25 years left in my career, and I hope, by the end of that, that it’s not such a big deal to have not just one Black person in the room, but five Black people,” she says. “If there are little kids in the audience, and they see me, and they look like me, I want them to feel that this is a path that’s available to them.”
But, for now, Gilmore says, they have so much work to do that she hasn’t allowed herself to stop and think about what it all means. “I’ll be walking the dog, and I’ll look at Venus and think, Oh, my God, we’re going to Venus! Then I freak out a little bit, you know. But it’s gonna be fine. The engineers will get us there.”