A private mission wants to find alien life on the most relentless planet in the solar system

The Last Assignment Entering the mysterious cloud layers of Earth’s superheated twin, Venus, was long enough since it was launched by the Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists. Vega 2 spent two days floating through clouds in the summer of 1985, and its lander survived for 56 minutes on the relentlessly hostile surface.

Since then, missions to Venus have remained in the relative safety of orbit. The last US mission to visit Venus itself was the Magellan, which visited in 1989 and hung around until 1994. But that will soon change.

As NASA plans for VERITAS and DAVINCI+ to orbit Venus and the latter to drop a probe into its cloud layers, a privately funded mission to Venus could pursue a controversial 2020 discovery pointing to microbial life in the upper cloud layers of Venus. Venus.

The MIT-based Venus Life Finder mission team wants to send a small, single-instrument probe to descend through the clouds that are permanently huddled over Earth’s closest neighbor next May, according to the team’s latest mission statement.

WHAT’S UP – The Venus Life Finder team offers three increasingly complex missions, the first of which is already prepared in collaboration with Rocket Lab. (Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck spoke with Reverse of its interest in the planet in 2021.)

The “little mission”, as the team calls it, involves sending an instrument known as an autofluorescence nephelometer (which really rolls on your tongue) plunging through Venus’ three cloud layers to observe the composition of clouds. The instrument will shine an ultraviolet laser into Venus’ atmosphere and watch it pass over passing particles.

Artistic representation of the Venus Life Finder fleet and what it might look like The Venus Life Finder Team

According to Janusz Petkowski, an astrobiology researcher at MIT and deputy PI on Venus Life Finder, “many atmospheric anomalies have accumulated over the decades since the Pioneer-Venus and Venera days of the Soviets,” from the presence of ammonia and oxygen, to non-spherical particles in clouds that could be salts, to the controversial presence of phosphine first reported in 2020. The Venus Life Finder mission would mark the first direct observations of the cloud layer in nearly four decades.

Petkowski says the Venus Life Finder will give scientists a chance to determine which of these anomalies are actually present in Venus’ atmosphere – or “perhaps even discover new anomalies in the process.”

Sara Seager, MIT astrophysicist and principal investigator of Venus Life Finder, says Reverse“if there are ringed carbon molecules, they are very easy to fluoresce. And that would be a really big breakthrough. It doesn’t tell us if there is life there, but if there is has organic molecules, that means there is organic chemistry, and that would definitely be a step in the right direction.

The tight targeting of this mission means that the question of phosphine, which federated the team during the pandemic, will have to wait for the following missions. Current plans call for moderate to heavy monitoring of the nephelometer. An average mission would involve floating a balloon through hard clouds for several days.

The most ambitious large mission would be to return a Venusian sample to Earth. These missions have a much longer time scale and rely on other parts of the community to solve critical engineering problems – like NASA’s Mars Sample Return, planned to collect the Perseverance samples after 2028.

A panorama of images from Venera 13.Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT – Since the last time probes visited Venus’ atmosphere, Seager says, “there’s this quiet revolution happening to think of Venus as a habitable environment.”

“Most of the biochemicals in our life can’t survive it, it was sort of the accepted wisdom that it was sterile,” she adds.

But laboratory experiments have begun to show that even an environment composed of sulfuric acid is not necessarily anathema to complex organic chemistry, or even to life.

“Our organic chemistry may not be able to survive it, but that doesn’t mean all organic chemistry is impossible,” Petkowski said. Finding organic molecules in the clouds of Venus would be the first step in determining whether there is rich hydrocarbon chemistry in the clouds.

Additionally, some of the anomalies observed by previous Venus missions indicate the potential for many more habitable spots on a planet still hostile to life. The presence of ammonia would mean that “the clouds are not exactly what we think they are,” adds Petkowski, and that while Venus is extremely dry overall, local measurements from Pioneer and the Soviet Venera probes indicate that there may be local spots where there are abnormally high amounts of water. “Venus’ clouds are a Pandora’s box – every time we dive into ancient data collected by Americans and Russians, we discover that clouds are much more than we actually thought and they are a lot more mysterious than we previously thought.”

AND NEXT — NASA and the European Space Agency each have missions scheduled for the end of the decade. But if launched on schedule in May 2023, Venus Life Finder would be the first privately funded science mission to another planet. “It’s kind of the opposite approach,” Seager notes. The mission would be launched aboard a Rocket Lab vehicle, marking that company’s first interplanetary mission.

Compared to these larger multi-mission probes, VLF’s first mission has only one instrument and one goal as a project: to determine if there is organic chemistry in the clouds of Venus. . “Instead of waiting 10 or 40 years to get back into Venus’ atmosphere, we’re trying to do targeted, but still very expensive things, missions that can answer questions sooner,” says Seager.

The team hopes Venus Life Finder’s first small mission will inspire a new focus on Venus’s present, not just its past. Seager notes, “The search for life on Venus is taboo, still kind of crazy, and although people thought about it half a century ago starting with Carl Sagan, it’s kind of out there And so there’s a real niche to fill for small targeted privately funded missions because there could be something big out there but if people are too conservative to seek it out it leaves an opening for a new way of doing things.

Arline J. Mercier