As the global pandemic of Covid-19 brought the world to its knees in late 2020, for a brief moment all eyes turned from our troubled planet to our planetary neighbor Venus. Astronomers discovered an amazing element above the clouds of this planet: a gas called phosphine, which is formed on Earth through biological processes.
As scientists struggled to make sense of what they were seeing, the speculation market heated up. Now a mission due to launch next year could finally answer a question that has haunted astronomers ever since: Could microbial life have produced phosphine?
Although later studies questioned the detection of phosphine in Venus, that initial research rekindled interest in Venus. Following the new discovery, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) selected three new spacecraft to travel to the planet and investigate whether Venus could have supported life in the past. China and India also plan to send probes to Venus. Colin WilsonPhosphine reminded everyone how little is known about Venus, says Envision’s chief scientist, Europe’s Venus mission.
However, most new Venus missions will not be completed until the late 2020s or 2030s; While astronomers are now demanding answers. Fortunately, Peter Beck, the CEO of RocketLab, a New Zealand-based space company, is also looking for answers. Beck, who has long been fascinated by Venus, has been talking to a group of MIT scientists about an audacious mission to search for life on Venus that could be launched much earlier (in 2023 with a backup window of January 2025) using one of the company’s rockets. .
Whether phosphine is involved or not, scientists think that if life exists on Venus, it might be found in the form of microbes floating inside tiny droplets of sulfuric acid high above the planet.
A private Venus probe would cost only 2 percent of each of NASA’s Venus missions
The surface of Venus has a very unfavorable environment with very high temperatures that melt lead and pressure levels similar to the bottom of Earth’s oceans; But the conditions at an altitude of 45 to 60 km from the surface in the clouds of Venus are significantly different.
“I’ve always felt that Venus has been sorely overlooked,” says Beck. [اما] The discovery of phosphine was the catalyst. “We have to go to Venus to search for life.” Details of the mission, which will be the first privately funded space travel to another planet, have now been released.
Rocketlab has built a multipurpose spacecraft called the Photon, which is the size of a dining room table and can be sent to multiple locations in the solar system. A mission to the moon was launched for NASA in June. For the Venus mission, another Photon spacecraft will be used to launch a small probe into the planet’s atmosphere.
Currently, a team with less than 30 members under guidance Sarah Seeger MIT is working on making the mentioned probe. The spacecraft will be launched in May 2023 (April 1402) and will reach its destination in October of the same year (October 1402).
With a budget of less than $10 million, funded by RocketLab, MIT, and anonymous benefactors, the mission is low-cost, albeit high-risk. In fact, a private Venus mission costs only 2% of any NASA Venus mission. “It’s the easiest, cheapest, and best thing you can do to make a big discovery,” Seeger says.
Weighing only 20 kg and measuring 38 cm, the Venus probe is a small spacecraft, slightly larger than a basketball hoop. Its cone-shaped design uses a thermal shield at the front, which can withstand the most intense heat produced during the collision with Venus’ atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 km/h.
Inside the probe, there will be only one instrument weighing less than one kilogram. When the probe crashes into the clouds of Venus, there will be no camera to take pictures; Because there is not much radio power or time to send the image to Earth. “We have to be very, very frugal with the data we send,” says Beck.
Of course, scientists are not looking for pictures, but the goal is to closely examine the clouds of Venus. This survey will be done by self-reflective supermeter; A device that shines an ultraviolet laser on the droplets on the Venusian atmosphere to determine the composition of the molecules inside them. As the probe descends, the laser shines out through a small window and excites the complex molecules in the tiny droplets (potentially including organic compounds), causing them to glow.
“We’ll be looking for organic particles inside the cloud droplets,” Seeger says. Such a discovery will not prove the existence of life; Because organic molecules can be created through methods that have nothing to do with biological processes. However, the discovery of organic materials will be a step towards considering Venus as a potentially habitable environment.
Only with direct measurements of the atmosphere can we look for the life forms we think still exist on Venus. Orbiting spacecraft can provide us with a lot of information about the extensive features of Venus; But to truly understand the planet, we need to send probes to study it closely. Although the Soviet Union and the United States sent probes to Venus in the 20th century, the Rocketlab-MIT collaboration is the first effort with such a clear focus on life.
Seeger says their mission will not be looking for phosphine itself; Because the instrument capable of detecting this gas does not fit in the probe. This task could fall on the shoulders of NASA’s DaVinciPlus mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2029.
This image shows the planned descent of the RocketLab probe into the Venusian atmosphere.
The RocketLab-MIT mission will be short. The probe will have just five minutes to perform its test as it descends through the Venusian clouds as it plummets toward the planet’s surface. send its data to earth. If the probe survives, more data can be collected from below the clouds. The probe will hit Earth one hour after entering Venus’ atmosphere. Communications will likely be lost some time before hitting the surface.
The MIT-RocketLab mission could fill the role that the private sector plays in planetary science.
Jane Graves who led the initial study to discover phosphine on Venus, says he is looking forward to the mission and is very excited about it. He adds that RocketLab-MIT’s Venus probe has a good chance of detecting organic matter that could mean the existence of life.
Seager hopes the upcoming mission is just the beginning. Seager’s team is planning missions to Venus that could follow the results of next year’s glimpse of the atmosphere. One idea is to place balloons in the clouds; Like the Soviet Vega balloons in the 1980s, which can conduct longer surveys. Seeger says:
We need more time in the clouds and ideally a bigger probe with more instruments on it. An hour is enough to search for complex molecules, not just to see their effect.
The RocketLab-MIT mission is able to demonstrate the role that the private sector can play in planetary science. While organizations like NASA continue to send multibillion-dollar probes into space, RocketLab and others can take a valuable position in the space exploration arena for sending smaller spacecraft, perhaps in quick response to discoveries like phosphine on Venus. Could this small but powerful effort find the first evidence of alien life in the universe? “It’s unlikely,” says Beck. But it’s worth a try.”