Life on Venus, or the possibility of it, has become a hot topic recently.
There was also much controversy, including the discovery of phosphine, a potential biomarker in the atmosphere (still disputed).
The best way to end this argument would be to go there and take samples that would at least help constrain the existence of life in the cloud layers of Venus.
And a broad team from academia and industry hopes to do just that.
Originally announced late last year, the Venus Life Finder (VLF) mission concept focused on what science would be needed to potentially discover life in the clouds of Venus.
The team behind the mission is certainly not the first to come up with the idea of life in the Venusian clouds.
Despite their warnings about dinosaurs on the surface of Venus, Carl Sagan and co-author Harold Morawitz were the first to scientifically publish the idea in 1967.
Since then, we’ve sent several probes through the Venusian clouds, and they’ve discovered a lot of strange chemicals that need another look.
But unfortunately, we haven’t sent any probes through the cloud layers since the 1980s.
Since then, not only have technologies that could be useful in the search for life improved dramatically. So has the entire scientific field of astrobiology, as noted in a new paper discussing future missions published by the VLF team.
These two facts alone should mean that 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 initially defined late last year. And the first step is ambitious, to say the least.
The VLF team has contracted with Rocketlab to send the probe into Venus’ atmosphere using the 2023 launch window.
Rocketlab will provide the rocket and the necessary transportation to our nearest neighbor. This will include a ride on the Electron launch vehicle, the Photon spacecraft and the entry vehicle.
Unfortunately, this vehicle will allow the probe to collect data in the upper atmosphere of the clouds, where the climate is most hospitable, for about three minutes. But these three minutes will be extremely valuable.
The science payload for this first mission will focus on the Autoflourescing Nephelometer (AFN), which can make organic material glow, and would do so for any existing organic material in Venus’ clouds.
Previously, probes had already found some oddly shaped molecules that were made from more than just liquid sulfuric acid. Known as mode 3 particles, their existence is one of the main factors of interest in this mission.
AFN, which is based on existing commercial technology already in use on the outside of aircraft, can provide unique information that will inform the next balloon mission.
The idea of a hot air balloon flight to Venus is not new either.
Some inspired futurists have even suggested that balloons could support entire cities in the cloud layer of Venus.
But the new VLF mission will not only use a balloon and a gondola, but also launch a series of probes through the cloud layer that could potentially collect data on the environment below.
The science payload of this much more powerful mission will include a spectrometer that will look for certain gases that may be key biosignatures, a microelectromechanical system that can detect the presence of metals, and an extremely sensitive pH sensor that can confirm the pH of cloud layers of the balloon will.
Most of these technologies already exist, but some, such as a liquid concentrator to feed the spectrometer, have yet to be developed.
This development effort will feed well into the last of the VLF’s three missions, the sample return mission.
Just like the planned mission to return samples from Mars and half a ton of rock brought back from the Moon, the best way to truly understand what is happening chemically in a given part of the solar system is to deliver a sample of that sample to a laboratory on Earth.
VLF’s third mission will develop another balloon, which will also include an ascent rocket that returns a sample of the Venusian atmosphere back to Earth for direct study with the best instruments we can muster.
Without further technological advances to capture and effectively preserve the atmosphere, this would be a moot point, but the experience of the other two missions would help inform the sample return mission.
And it will be a long time before such a mission is launched. If the VLF team succeeds in launching its first mission next year, it will be an amazing achievement and could potentially lead to one of the most important discoveries science has ever made.
Written by Andy Thomaswick.
Source: The universe today.