Venus Is In The Spotlight Again With This 2023 ‘Life Finder Mission’

This cloud-skimming mission to Earth’s sister planet is set to hunt for signs of life among its ultra-acidic atmosphere

By Faisal Khan | 6 January 2022
Medium

A volcano named Sapas Mons dominates this computer-generated view of the surface of Venus. (Credit: NASA / JPL)

Surface temperatures at the second closest planet to the sun can soar to 464 °C (867 °F) — hot enough to melt Lead. Add to this a dense atmosphere containing 96.5% carbon dioxide with sulphuric acid downpours, the planet isn’t exactly a habitable paradise. Even with these extreme conditions, astronomers have been hopeful of a habitable Venus, sometime in the past. I covered this research in one of my previous articles in 2019, where scientists speculate that Venus might have been habitable until 700 million years ago.

But most of the current endeavors have been mostly focused on our Red neighbor Mars. Venus, however, has also started to receive much-needed attention recently. Perhaps the Kickstarter to these events was the discovery of phosphine molecules in the Venusian atmosphere. Here on planet Earth, Phosphine gas is produced industrially or made by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, leading some to believe that life might be existing on Venus in some form or shape.

Although the phosphine discovery was shot down by researchers a few months later — terming it as more likely to be ordinary sulfur dioxide, the debate around the existence of microbial life in Venusian clouds has ensued. To settle this debate and give some kind of closure to the argument, a suite of scrappy, privately-funded missions set to hunt for signs of life among the ultra-acidic atmosphere of the second planet.

“There are these lingering mysteries on Venus that we can’t really solve unless we go back there directly… If there’s life on Venus, it’s some kind of microbial-type life, and it almost certainly resides inside cloud particles.”

~ Sara Seager, Principal Investigator of the Mission

Pro-life scientists hypothesize that there is a fair chance of microbial life to exist in the Venusian clouds at altitudes between 48 and 60 km (30 and 37 miles). At this altitude, the pressure is less intense and the temperature is much colder as well — providing an ideal environment for microbial communities to thrive. The MIT-led of research has laid out the scientific plan for the mission in a new report published recently.

The first of the planned Venus Life Finder Missions is set to launch in 2023. According to the details, it is being managed and funded by California-based Rocket Lab. The company’s Electron rocket will send a 50-pound probe onboard its Photon spacecraft for the fivemonth, 38-million-mile journey to Venus, all for a three-minute skim through the Venusian clouds.

Researchers publishing the mission report included scientists from Georgia Tech, Purdue University, Caltech, and Planetary Science Institute, and was funded by Breakthrough Initiatives. For the pioneering mission, the team selected a minimal payload of just 1 kilogram. This consisted of an instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer.

Traversing through the Venus’ atmosphere, the instrument will shine a laser out of a window onto cloud particles, causing any complex molecules within them to light up or fluoresce — similar to how some organic molecules like amino acid tryptophan, have fluorescent properties. The instrument will also measure the pattern of light reflected back from the droplets. Pure sulfuric acid droplets are spherical, while any other find could suggest the possible presence of organic molecules.

A follow-up mission is planned for 2026, whatever the finds are for the 2023 mission. The second mission would consist of a larger payload (with a balloon) and more extensive measurements in the clouds. Results from this experiment would pave the way for a final mission, which would bring back a sample of Venus’ atmosphere to Earth.

Complete text of the Venus Life Finder Mission Study is available here.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

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