. 24/7 Space News .
"Newer, nimbler, faster:" Venus probe will search for signs of life in clouds of sulfuric acid
by Staff Writers for EAPS News
Boston MA (SPX) Dec 10, 2021

A false-color image of the sulfurous Venusian cloud cover was produced using two ultraviolet channels from Akatsuki, the Japanese PLANET-C, and Venus Climate Orbiter, which highlights the convective turbulence of the planet's tropical regions, in contrast with the clear, smoother polar regions.

With multiple rovers landed and a mission set to return samples to Earth, Mars has dominated the search for life in the solar system for decades. But Venus has some fresh attention coming its way.

In a new report published Friday, a team led by MIT researchers lays out the scientific plan and rationale for a suite of scrappy, privately-funded missions set to hunt for signs of life among the ultra-acidic atmosphere of the second planet from the sun.

"We hope this is the start of a new paradigm where you go cheaply, more often, and in a more focused way," says Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Sciences in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and principal investigator for the planned Venus Life Finder Missions. "This is a newer, nimbler, faster way to do space science. It's very MIT."

The first of the missions is set to launch in 2023, managed and funded by California-based Rocket Lab. The company's Electron rocket will send a 50-pound probe on board its Photon spacecraft for the five-month, 38-million-mile journey to Venus, all for a three-minute skim through the Venusian clouds.

Using a laser instrument specially designed for the mission, the probe will aim to detect signs that complex chemistry is occurring within the droplets it encounters on its brief descent into the haze. Fluorescence or impurities detected in the droplets could indicate something more interesting than sulfuric acid might be wafting around up there, and add ammunition to the idea that parts of Venus' atmosphere might be habitable.

"People have been talking about missions to Venus for a long time," says Seager. "But we've come up with a new suite of focused, miniaturized instruments to get the particular job done."

Seager, who also holds joint appointments in the departments of Physics and of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says that compared to Mars, Venus is the "neglected sibling" of astrobiology. The last probes to enter Venus' atmosphere were launched in the 1980s, and were limited by instrumentation available at the time. And while NASA and the European Space Agency have missions to Venus planned for later in the decade, neither will search for signs of life.

"There are these lingering mysteries on Venus that we can't really solve unless we go back there directly," says Seager. "Lingering chemical anomalies that leave room for the possibility of life."

These anomalies include significant levels of oxygen; unexplained ratios of sulfur dioxide, oxygen, and water; and the presence of cloud particles with unknown composition. More controversially, Seager was part of a team that reported last year a detection of phosphine gas in Venus' atmosphere, which on Earth is produced only by biological and industrial processes.

Other astrophysicists have since challenged the phosphine detection, but Seager says the finding has overall brought positive momentum to the Venus missions. "The whole phosphine controversy made people more interested in Venus. It allowed people to take Venus more seriously," she says.

Phosphine or not, the planned missions will focus on Venus' atmosphere because it is the environment most likely to be habitable on the planet. While a runaway greenhouse effect left Venus' surface a waterless hellscape hot enough to melt lead, clouds high in the atmosphere retain temperatures suitable for life as we know it.

"If there's life on Venus, it's some kind of microbial-type life, and it almost certainly resides inside cloud particles," says Seager.

However, the clouds of Venus, though relatively temperate, pose other challenges to habitability. For one, they are primarily composed of concentrated sulfuric acid billions of time more acidic than any habitat on Earth. The atmosphere outside of the clouds is also extremely dry, 50 to 100 times drier than the Atacama Desert in Chile.

To assess the potential habitability of these acidic, parched clouds, the report team reviewed the literature and conducted a number of experiments. "We set out to do some new science to inform the mission," says Seager.

The international team behind the report included researchers from Georgia Tech, Purdue University, Caltech, and Planetary Science Institute, and was funded by Breakthrough Initiatives. In addition to Seager, who led the team, MIT EAPS Research Affiliate Janusz Petkowski served as deputy principal investigator.

Drawing from experimental results, the report speculates that life could persist within sulfuric acid droplets in various ways. It could reside within vesicles of acid-resistant lipids, or it could neutralize sulfuric acid by producing ammonia, which can reduce the pH of sulfuric acid to a level tolerated by acid-loving microbes on Earth. Or, in theory, Venus cloud-life could rely on a biochemistry capable of tolerating sulfuric acid, distinct from anything on Earth.

Regarding dryness, the report points out that while the atmosphere on average might be too arid for life, there may exist habitable regions with relatively high humidity.

Based on their research, the team also selected the scientific payload for the mission - which was restricted to just 1 kilogram. Seager says they settled on an instrument called an autofluorescing nephelometer because it could get the job done and was small, cheap, and could be built quickly enough for the compressed mission timeline.

The instrument is currently being built by a New Mexico-based company called Cloud Measurement Solutions, and a Colorado-based company called Droplet Measurement Technologies. The instrument is partially funded by MIT alumni.

Once the probe is in Venus' atmosphere, the instrument will shine a laser out of a window onto cloud particles, causing any complex molecules within them to light up, or fluoresce. Many organic molecules, such as the amino acid tryptophan, have fluorescent properties.

"If we see fluorescence, we know something interesting is in the cloud particles," says Seager. "We can't guarantee what organic molecule it is, or even be certain it's an organic molecule. But it's going to tell you there's something incredibly interesting going on."

The instrument will also measure the pattern of light reflected back from the droplets to determine their shape. Pure sulfuric acid droplets would be spherical. Anything else would suggest there's more going on than meets the autofluorescing nephelometer.

But whatever the 2023 mission finds, the next mission in the suite is already being planned for 2026. That probe would involve a larger payload, with a balloon that could spend more time in Venus' clouds and conduct more extensive experiments. Results from that mission might then set the stage for the culmination of the Venus Life Finder Missions concept: return a sample of Venus' atmosphere to Earth.

"We think it's disruptive," says Seager. "And that's the MIT style. We operate right on that line between mainstream and crazy."

Research Report: "Venus Life Finder Mission Study"

Related Links
Venus Life Finder Missions
Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth

Thanks for being there;
We need your help. The SpaceDaily news network continues to grow but revenues have never been harder to maintain.

With the rise of Ad Blockers, and Facebook - our traditional revenue sources via quality network advertising continues to decline. And unlike so many other news sites, we don't have a paywall - with those annoying usernames and passwords.

Our news coverage takes time and effort to publish 365 days a year.

If you find our news sites informative and useful then please consider becoming a regular supporter or for now make a one off contribution.
SpaceDaily Monthly Supporter
$5+ Billed Monthly

paypal only
SpaceDaily Contributor
$5 Billed Once

credit card or paypal

Iron integral to the development of life on Earth - and the possibility of life on other planets
Oxford UK (SPX) Dec 08, 2021
Iron is an essential nutrient that almost all life requires to grow and thrive. Iron's importance goes all the way back to the formation of the planet Earth, where the amount of iron in the Earth's rocky mantle was 'set' by the conditions under which the planet formed and went on to have major ramifications for how life developed. Now, scientists at the University of Oxford have uncovered the likely mechanisms by which iron influenced the development of complex life forms, which can also be used t ... read more

Comment using your Disqus, Facebook, Google or Twitter login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks
del.icio.usdel.icio.us DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Experiments riding 24th SpaceX Cargo Mission to USS included bioprinting, crystallization, laundry studies

Successful and diverse harvest in darkness and eternal ice

Russia's cosmos town, an isolated relic of Soviet glory

Leveraging AI to accelerate development of scientific models

Rocket Lab launches 109th satellite to orbit

Spire Global selects Virgin Orbit for late-load addition to next flight

New rocket test facility under construction in Scotland

Russia strikes deal with NASA for first cosmonaut on SpaceX flight

NASA's eventual farewell to tiny Mars helicopter could be emotional

Lower atmospheric processes are crucial to understanding Martian water loss

Sol 3320: Flexibility is Key

Mars helicopter flies again; encounters radio interference on 17th flight

Chinese astronauts to give space lecture on Dec. 9

First crew of space station provide a full update on China's progress

Milestone mission for China's first commercial rocket company

China to livestream first space class from Tiangong space station

Kleos' Patrol Mission Satellites Ready and Shipped to Launch Site

Europe opens up a new space to commercial services

Growing trend shows demand for maintenance students at commercial space firms

Airbus and DLR intensify cooperation

NASA and industry embrace laser communications

Oculus Observatory set to disrupt space situational awareness globally

Technique enables real-time rendering of scenes in 3D

Researchers develop novel 3D printing technique to engineer biofilms

ESO telescope images planet around most massive star pair to date

Gas bubbles in rock pores - a nursery for life on Early Earth

Iron integral to the development of life on Earth - and the possibility of life on other planets

Airbus will build ESA's Ariel exoplanet satellite

Planet decision that booted out Pluto is rooted in folklore, astrology

Are Water Plumes Spraying from Europa

Science results offer first 3D view of Jupiter's atmosphere

Juno peers deep into Jupiter's colorful belts and zones

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2024 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Statement Our advertisers use various cookies and the like to deliver the best ad banner available at one time. All network advertising suppliers have GDPR policies (Legitimate Interest) that conform with EU regulations for data collection. By using our websites you consent to cookie based advertising. If you do not agree with this then you must stop using the websites from May 25, 2018. Privacy Statement. Additional information can be found here at About Us.