Scientists believe they have detected signs of life on Venus and the United States intends to discover the truth through a combination of public and private missions to Earth’s neighbor.
The US space agency NASA is making plans for an unmanned trip to Venus before the end of the decade to answer questions about life on other planets.
The new attention to Venus was spurred by the apparent discovery last year of phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere by a UK-led research team. The discovery of the gas was made using powerful telescopes.
On Earth, phosphine is associated with life. On Venus, scientists are still searching for answers as to whether it is a sign of life.
In June, NASA selected two new missions: DAVINCI +, centered on the atmosphere of Venus, and VERITAS, centered on the surface of Venus. Tom Wagner, a NASA scientist who leads the Discovery Program that selected the missions, said the DAVINCI + mission will measure phosphine.
“The potential discovery of phosphine, or the possibility of phosphine being discovered in the atmosphere of Venus, was like a thunderbolt through the community, right?” Said Mr. Wagner. “Because there are questions like, ‘Hey, some people think that life could survive in the atmosphere of Venus even if it doesn’t survive on the surface.’ It’s a really intriguing question. “
Venus, the second planet from the Sun and Earth’s neighbor in the solar system, is the brightest natural object in Earth’s night sky other than the Moon. But traditionally it has been Earth’s other neighbor, Mars, that captures the imagination and inspires tales of aliens or Martians.
The potential discovery of phosphine gas on Venus sparked a vigorous debate about the possibility of life on the extremely hot, brightly lit planet. Some scientists argued that the UK-led scientists misinterpreted the data.
Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT and a co-author of the study by the UK-led research team, said she’s eager to examine more information, but that it wasn’t just phosphine that was unexpectedly detected on Venus. He said there is other evidence of things in Venus’ atmosphere that don’t make sense, including small amounts of molecular oxygen and the “tentative detection of ammonia NH3.”
“It’s like someone left these clues, you know?” Mrs. Seager said. “Like a forensic crime scene, we have a puzzle and you can’t just say, ‘Oh, that means there is life.’ Because it’s not like that, but it’s not just phosphine. “
Wagner said the NASA team is considering making a subtle change to instruments to measure traces of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere that they might otherwise miss.
NASA has said that the DAVINCI + and VERITAS missions, each costing $ 500 million, are aimed at studying the “lost habitable” world of Venus.
According to NASA, Venus may have been the first habitable world in our solar system complete with an ocean and a climate similar to Earth’s, but which descended into an uninhabitable hell. Wagner said he hopes that upcoming NASA missions will rewrite the textbooks on Venus and serve as a rediscovery of the planet.
“It’s not just about going there and measuring phosphine, it’s actually about really understanding how the planet works as a system, if phosphine was there, how it was generated, and what other life markers could be its precursors of life and the habitability in general. You ask, that’s what we really mean, ”Wagner said.
The DAVINCI + and VERITAS missions will take about six months to get from Earth to Venus, according to NASA officials. Mr. Wagner said that VERITAS will orbit Venus for at least a couple of years mapping the planet, while DAVINCI + will descend through the atmosphere in about 40 minutes. Once DAVINCI + reaches the surface of Venus, it will have approximately 10 minutes to take readings before succumbing to the planet’s surface temperature, which can exceed 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA’s focus on Venus is not fleeting. Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030, but NASA is already taking steps to make further trips to Venus possible. In June, NASA released a request for partners to help develop “Hot Operating Temperature Technology” for Venus that, according to Mr. Wagner, was about making electronics, batteries and radios that can survive extreme heat.
NASA’s long-term perspective stands in stark contrast to the strategies of space race billionaires Jeff Bezos, who intends to visit outer space later this month, and Elon Musk, who intends to help colonize. Mars.
NASA’s careful work is part of the approach that has sustained the agency throughout its history and allowed it to exceed expectations. By focusing on ‘habitability’ rather than the search for life, NASA is underestimating the devastating discoveries that could come next.
“We use ‘habitability’ when it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re not looking for a living thing moving,’ right? We are trying to understand maybe how life could have formed, ”Wagner said. “Hell, if we see life, that’s great. But you know, if we don’t, it’s another piece of the puzzle. “
If there is life on Venus, Ms Seager said she believes it would be associated with the planet’s cloud droplets and her team is working on a privately funded mission to examine the droplets. His team is also working with Rocket Lab, a California-based company, which has made plans to search for life in the clouds of Venus on a mission scheduled for 2023.