Venus is a nasty planet. Thick layers of high-pressure, sulphurous clouds cover one very hot volcanic surface, which can rise up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, astrobiologists believe there may be life — or evidence of past life — in the noxious clouds of Earth’s nearest neighbor, 150 million miles away. If so, it may be stranger than any life we have ever observed on our own planet.
For all its promise as the site of first contact, Venus is a fairly low priority for the two space agencies in the world with the most resources for interplanetary missions: NASA and the European Space Agency. Both agencies have plans to visit Venus. NASA’s Davinci Plus+ probe will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it evolved, and the Veritas mission will map the planet’s rocky surface. The ESA mission, EnVision, is a “holistic” survey of Venus, from clouds to surface.
However, none of these missions will start before the end of the current decade. And more critically, the search for life is not a primary goal, only an auxiliary goal.
Some scientists are not willing to wait for NASA and ESA. A team led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomer Sara Seager has organized it own privately funded mission to Venus. If nothing goes wrong, it’s going to explode next year.
Private citizens and companies “can ask scientific questions that are not in the mainstream of a public agency,” Janusz Petkowski, an MIT astrobiologist who is on the VLF team, told The Daily Beast.
“NASA and ESA are very slow, especially with life detection,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astronomer at the Technical University Berlin who is not affiliated with the VLF project, told The Daily Beast. “There hasn’t been a single life detection mission since the 1970s – the Viking landers on Mars – even though the technology and also the environmental understanding of the nearby planetary bodies has improved so much.”
The Venus Life Finder project actually involves three separate missions, each of which will drop a probe into the toxic planet’s acidic atmosphere and collect data on the presence or absence of anything resembling life.
The first mission aims to hurl a probe straight through Venus’ atmosphere at terminal velocity. The second mission would deploy a balloon to gently carry instruments through the 40-mile-thick cloud layer, giving them more time to gather data. The third and most ambitious mission would pick up a sample of the acid clouds and fly it back to Earth for further analysis.
All three missions have the same goal: to find evidence that something is metabolizing in or under these clouds. “We designed and performed chemistry and biology experiments to guide mission science goals related to habitability and the search for life,” the VLF team wrote in a peer-reviewed paper that appeared in the journal Science Aviation on 18 July.
To be clear, the two upcoming NASA missions and an ESA mission are also on track to investigate Venus’ atmosphere starting around 2028. But these missions “are for general studies about the planet’s properties and do not address the questions of habitability and astrobiology ,” the VLF team explained.
The first VLF mission is already on the calendar for a launch in May 2023. The California-based company Rocket Lab is delivering its 12-tonne electron rocket, the spacecraft and the entry vehicle which – with a 2-kilogram chemical instrument and a radio transmitter on board – will plunge through the the Venusian clouds for up to three minutes before smashing into the volcanic surface.
The first mission’s primary scientific goal is to search for organic compounds. These compounds would not prove that life exists on Venus. But they could prove that a strange form of life, consisting of the same compounds, maybe be present on the toxic planet – and that follow-up probes are not a waste of time and money. “A discovery of organic compounds will show that complex molecules suitable for life can exist,” explained the VLF team.
The second mission would take its time. Instead of zooming straight through Venus’ atmosphere, the second spacecraft — still on the drawing board — would deploy a 12-foot-diameter balloon and drift quietly above the clouds for up to two weeks.
As it dangled from the balloon, the probe would split into four miniprobes that would descend on cables to different cloud layers. They would look for life-supporting metals in the atmosphere, measure acidity and potentially even inspect gas droplets for signs of microbes that might be alive and floating in the planet’s clouds. The latter requires a better microscope than what VLF has access to today.
The goal of the balloon mission is to “support or refute evidence for signs of life in the Venus cloud layers,” the VLF team wrote. But even positive signs would not be definitive proof. For that, the team needs an actual sample containing actual microbes — or remnants of them, at least.
So the third and most ambitious VLF probe would skim the top of the Venusian clouds, scooping up a liter of gas and a few grams of cloud particles, before flying away and returning to Earth. “A sample return is arguably the most robust way to search for signs of life or life itself in Venus’ atmosphere,” explained the VLF team.
If all this sounds expensive – well, it is. But not by the standards of NASA and ESA, which typically spend half a billion dollars per probe, at a minimum. VLF got its start-up funding — a few “hundred thousand” dollars, according to Seager — from the Breakthrough Initiative, a science incubator largely funded by Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner. (The organization also supports a wild and perhaps not entirely feasible project to send “nanocraft” to a nearby star system to search for alien life.)
The rest of the project’s budget is “in kind” – researchers and engineers will volunteer their time and effort. Rocket Lab is apparently donating the rocket for the first launch. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
The first probe happens to be the cheapest and it is ready to use. The second and third probes still need work. The goal is to have them built and launched before ESA launches its first Venus probe in 2027. (NASA’s mission is planned for the period 2028 to 2030.)
It’s okay if the VLF soundings don’t end up finding anything alive, emphasized the VLF team. Venus is strange, and worth studying, even if it is sterile. “Even if no life is present, current evidence suggests that we have much to learn about this extremely alien world,” the team wrote.
Hopefully, the private Venus mission will gather data that will at least contribute to a better understanding of Earth’s nearest neighbor. In that sense, the VLF project and the future NASA and ESA missions can work together, investigating each part of Venus in a different way.
“Helen is greater than the sum of its parts,” David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute and a VLF team member, told The Daily Beast. “We all wish each other success.”
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