What wouldn’t it take to search out life on Venus?

Life on Venus, or the possibility of it, has been a hot topic lately. There has also been much controversy, including the (still controversial) discovery of phosphine, a potential biomarker in the atmosphere. The best way to settle this controversy would be to go there and actually take samples, which would at least help narrow down the existence of life in the cloud layers of Venus. And that is exactly what a broad-based team from science and industry is hoping for.

The Venus Life Finder (VLF) mission concept, originally announced late last year, focuses on what science needs 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 clouds of Venus. Despite his admonitions about dinosaurs on the surface of Venus, Carl Sagan and co-author Harold Morowitz were the first to publish the idea scientifically in 1967.

Since then we’ve sent several probes through the clouds of Venus and they’ve discovered many strange chemical compounds that warrant another look. But unfortunately we haven’t sent probes back through the cloud layers since the 1980s. Since then, not only technologies that could be useful in the search for life have improved dramatically. The same is true for the entire scientific field of astrobiology, as mentioned in a new paper discussing future missions published by the VLF team.

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UT video about the possibility of life on Venus.

Those two facts in themselves should mean it’s time for another look at Venus’ atmosphere from a biochemical perspective, and that’s exactly what the VLF team hopes to deliver. Their three-phase mission was originally defined late last year. And the first step is ambitious, to say the least.

The team at VLF has commissioned Rocketlab to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere with a launch window of 2023. Rocketlab will provide the rocket and necessary transport to our nearest neighbor. This includes a ride on the Electron launch vehicle, the Photon spacecraft and one of the company’s entry vehicles.

Unfortunately, this entry vehicle only allows a probe to collect data in the upper atmosphere of the clouds, where the climate is most hospitable, for about three minutes. But those three minutes will be immensely valuable. The science payload for this first mission will focus on an autofluorescent nephelometer (AFN) that can make organic material glow and would do so for any organic material present in the clouds of Venus.

First balloon mission concept using probes that would fall through the atmosphere.
Credit – Seager et al.

Previously, probes had found some strangely shaped molecules that weren’t simply liquid sulfuric acid. Known as Mode 3 particles, their existence is one of the main reasons for interest in the mission in the first place. An AFN based on existing commercial technologies already in use outside of aircraft could provide unique insights that would influence the next mission – a balloon.

The idea of ​​a balloon mission to Venus is not new either. Some inspired futurists have even suggested that balloons could carry entire cities in Venus’ cloud layer. But the new VLF mission would not just use a balloon and gondola, but would send a series of probes down through the cloud layer that could potentially collect data on the environment below. The scientific payload of this much more powerful mission would include a spectrometer that would search for specific gases that could be important biosignatures, a microelectromechanical system that can detect the presence of metals, and an extremely sensitive pH sensor that would measure the pH Value could validate the cloud layers of the balloon would be. Most of these technologies already exist, but some, such as a liquid concentrator to feed the spectrometer, still need to be developed.

This development effort would flow well into the last of the three VLF missions – a sample return mission. Just like the planned sample return mission from Mars and the half-ton of rocks brought back from the moon, the best way to really understand what’s going on chemically in a particular part of the solar system is to bring a sample back to the labs on Earth . The third VLF mission would design another balloon that would also include an ascending rocket that would return a sample of Venus’ atmosphere to Earth for direct study with the best instruments we can muster.

Concept art for the Venus Sample Return mission.
Credit – Seager et al.

Without further technological advances to capture and effectively store the atmosphere, this would be a moot point, but experience from the other two missions would help inform the sample return mission. And there would still be enough time before the start of such a mission. If the VLF team manages to launch its first mission next year, it would be an amazing achievement and could potentially lead to one of the most important discoveries science has ever made.

Learn more:
Seager et al – Venus Life Finder Missions Motivation and Summary
UT – A private mission to scan the cloud tops of Venus for evidence of life
Subtitles – Did scientists just find signs of life on Venus?
UT – Life at high altitude cannot explain the trace gases in Venus’ atmosphere
UT – Life could make habitable pockets in Venus’ atmosphere]

main picture:
Artist’s impression of the balloon mission to Venus.
Credit – Seager et al.

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