Life on Venus, or the potential for that to happen, has been a hot topic lately. There has also been a lot of controversy, including the discovery of phosphine (which is still disputed), a potential biomarker in the atmosphere. The best way to rest this controversy is to go out there and actually take samples, which will at least help constrain the presence of life in Venus’ cloud layers. And a wide-ranging team from academia and industry hopes to do just that.
Originally announced late last year, the Venus Life Finder (VLF) mission concept focuses on what science is needed to discover life in the clouds of Venus. The team behind the mission certainly isn’t the first to come up with the idea of life in the clouds of Venus. Despite his warnings about dinosaurs on the surface of Venus, Carl Sagan and co-author Harold Morrowitz were the first to scientifically publicize the idea in 1967.
Since then, we’ve sent several investigations through the clouds of Venus, and they’ve discovered plenty of strange chemistry that requires another look. But unfortunately, we haven’t sent any sensors back through the cloud layers since the 1980s. Techniques that might be useful in finding life just haven’t improved dramatically since then. So did the entire scientific field of astrobiology, as reported in a new research paper discussing future missions from the VLF team.
Those two facts in and of themselves should mean it’s time to take another look at Venus’s atmosphere from a biochemical perspective, and that’s what the VLF team hopes to provide. Their three-phase mission was originally set out late last year. The first step, to say the least, is ambitious.
The VLF team has contracted with Rocketlab to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere using the 2023 launch window. Rocketlab will provide the rocket and necessary transportation to our nearest neighbors. This will include a ride on the company’s Electron launch vehicle, Foton spacecraft, and entry vehicle.
Unfortunately, this entry vehicle will only allow the probe to collect data in the clouds’ upper atmosphere, where the climate is more favorable, for about three minutes. But those three minutes will be very valuable. The scientific payload for this First mission It will focus on the Autonomous Nucleimeter (AFN), which can make organic matter shine, and do so for any organic matter present in Venus’ clouds.
Previously, the probes actually found some oddly shaped particles that weren’t simply made of liquid sulfuric acid. Their presence, known as Mode 3 particles, is one of the main drivers behind interest in the mission in the first place. The AFN, which builds on existing commercial technologies already in use on the exterior of aircraft, could provide unique insights that would inform the next mission – a balloon.
The idea of sending a balloon to Venus isn’t new either. Some inspired futurists suggested that balloons might be able to support entire cities in the cloud layer of Venus. But the new VLF mission will not only use a balloon and gondola, but will launch a series of sensors down through the cloud layer that can collect data about the environment below. The science payload for this more capable mission will include a spectrometer that searches for specific gases that may be key bio-fingerprints, as well as a micro-mechanical system that can detect the presence of metals and a highly sensitive pH sensor that can validate pH. The balloon cloud layers will be. Most of these technologies already exist, but some, such as a liquid-fed spectrometer condenser, still need to be developed.
This development effort will eventually feed well from the three VLF missions – a typical return mission. Just like a typical planned return mission from Mars and half a ton of rock brought from the Moon, the best way to chemically understand what’s going on in a particular part of the solar system is to return a sample of it to labs on Earth. The third VLF mission will design another airship that also includes an ascending rocket that will return a sample of Venus’s atmosphere back to Earth to be studied directly with the best instruments we can muster.
Without further technological advances to effectively capture and store the atmosphere, it will be a moot point, but experience from the other two missions will help inform the return sample. There will still be plenty of time before any such mission is launched. If the VLF team manages to launch its first mission next year, it would be a remarkable feat and could lead to one of the most important discoveries science has ever made.
Sarah Seeger et al., Defender and summary of the tasks of the Seeker of Life in Venus. arXiv: 2208.05570v1 [astro-ph.IM]And the arxiv.org/abs/2208.05570
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