Is there alien life in our solar system? This is perhaps one of the most important questions that remains unanswered. And while we pursue the answer to this question, scientists can take a wild guess, based on data we have, where life might exist. And there are a few places, actually. Mars, for one, is believed to have been a planet that was much like Earth billions of years ago. Having had vast oceans, river systems, and lakes, scientists believe that life may once have existed on the red planet’s surface.
But Mars isn’t the only place where life may have evolved. The moons of planets such as Jupiter and Saturn are also likely places where life may have sprung into existence. But we might not need to go as far as Jupiter or Saturn to find traces of alien life. Venus is another potential place where life could exist right now.
As revealed by MIT Technology Review, in 2020, astronomers discovered a gas called phosphine in the cloud tops of Venus, which is created by biological processes on Earth. The discovery of the gas sparked a storm of speculation among scientists as they tried to understand what they were seeing and whether it was an indication of life. Astronomers have been asking for two years whether microbial life is belching out gas. There may be a final answer to this question when a mission is launched next year.
In spite of the fact that later studies questioned the detection of phosphine in Venus, the initial study reignited interest in the planet. The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA selected three new missions to visit the planet in the wake of its discovery to investigate whether life might have existed there in the past. There are plans for missions to Venus from China and India as well. One of the deputy lead scientists on Europe’s Venus mission, EnVision, Colin Wilson at the University of Oxford, says phosphorous reminded everyone how poorly characterized the planet was.
However, most of these missions won’t return results until the late 2020s or early 2030s. Answers were urgently needed by astronomers. As luck would have it, so did Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck. Beck has been fascinated by Venus for decades, and a group of MIT scientists approached the company about launching a rocket in 2023 to look for life on the planet earlier.
Whether there is phosphorus or not, scientists believe that if life exists on Venus, it may be in the form of microorganisms inside tiny droplets of sulfuric acid. Venus appears to have a largely inhospitable surface, with temperatures so hot they melt lead and pressures as great as those in Earth’s oceans, but the conditions above the clouds are significantly more temperate.
“I’ve always felt that Venus has got a hard rap,” revealed Beck. “The discovery of phosphine was the catalyst. We need to go to Venus to look for life.”
Detailed information about the mission, the first privately financed mission to another planet, has been released. A small, multipurpose spacecraft called Photon has been developed by Rocket Lab to move to multiple locations within the solar system. It is about the size of a dining table.
Sara Seager at MIT leads a team of fewer than 30 people developing the probe. The mission will launch in May 2023 and arrive on Venus in October 2023 after five months of travel. Rocket Lab, MIT, and undisclosed benefactors are funding the mission, which is high risk but low cost at just 2% of the cost of NASA’s Venus missions.
“This is the simplest, cheapest, and best thing you could do to try and make a great discovery,” says Seager.
Small in size and weighing only 45 pounds, the probe measures 15 inches across. Designed in a cone shape, the probe features a heat shield that will handle the intense heat created when it hits the Venusian atmosphere at 40,000 kilometers per hour when it is released from the Photon craft.
A single instrument will be inside the probe, weighing only two pounds. The probe does not have a camera on board to take pictures as it falls through Venus’ clouds-it simply lacks the radio power and time to transmit much back to Earth. “We have to be very, very frugal with the data that we’re sending back,” says Beck.
Rather than images, scientists are interested in examining Venus’s clouds closely. In order to determine the composition of molecules inside droplets in Venus’s atmosphere, an autofluorescing nephelometer will flash an ultraviolet laser on the droplets. A small window will let the laser shine outwards as the probe descends. Fluorescent droplets will be produced when complex molecules – potentially organic compounds – are excited in the droplets.
During the study, Seager plans to look for organic particles inside cloud droplets.
There are ways to make organic molecules that don’t involve biological processes, so such a discovery wouldn’t establish life. Nevertheless, finding them would allow us to consider Venus as a potentially habitable planet.
It is only through direct measurements of the atmosphere that we can determine whether Venus harbors life. Observations from orbiting spacecraft can give us a lot of information about the planet, but we need to send probes to study it closer. Even though the Soviet Union and the US sent probes to Venus in the 20th century, this is the first time they have focused so clearly on life.
It will be a short mission for Rocket Lab and MIT. While falling through Venus’ clouds, the probe will have just five minutes to perform its experiment, transmitting its data back to Earth. If the probe survives, additional data may be collected below the clouds. The probe will hit the ground an hour after entering Venus’ atmosphere. There is a good chance that communications will be lost before then.
Scientist Jane Greaves, who first discovered phosphine on Venus, looks forward to the mission. “I’m very excited about it,” she says, adding that it has a “great chance” at detecting organic materials, which “might mean life is there.”
This is just the beginning, according to Seager. She plans to follow up on the results of this tentative look into Venus’ atmosphere with future missions to the planet. It would be possible to conduct longer studies with balloons placed in the clouds, such as the Soviet Vega balloons of the 1980s.
Seager emphasizes that “we need more time in the clouds,” ideally with something larger and equipped with more instruments.” According to experts, an hour would be enough to probe the atmosphere of the hellish planet for complex molecules, not just see their imprint.
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