A new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) details the privately funded Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions, starting with the first proposed launch in 2023. Hoping to settle the debate regarding potential microbial life in the clouds of the second planet from the Sun, the MIT report charts a path for future privately funded missions that they believe will answer this question once and for all.
BACKGROUND: IS THERE LIFE IN THE VENUSIAN ATMOSPHERE?
In 2020, researchers announced the stunning, and almost instantly controversial finding of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus. That’s because finding phosphine at these particular altitudes and in these particular concentrations seemed to indicate that microbial life may currently reside within an area of Venus’ atmosphere previously noted for its potential habitability. A recent report doubled down on those initial results, but critics say the debate is still far from settled.
“The whole phosphine controversy made people more interested in Venus,” explains Sara Seager, a Professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT in a press release announcing the newly outlined Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions. “It allowed people to take Venus more seriously.”
Now, Seager and her fellow MIT researchers have laid out a multi-mission plan designed to send numerous probes into the Venusian atmosphere, with the first such mission launch now less than two years away.
ANALYSIS: VENUS LIFE FINDER READY FOR STAGE ONE
“People have been talking about missions to Venus for a long time,” said Seager, who is also a principal investigator on the VLF team. “But we’ve come up with a new suite of focused, miniaturized instruments to get the particular job done.”
The first mission’s lone instrument is an autofluorescing nephelometer. Once the probe carrying this instrument reaches the atmosphere of Venus, a trip expected to take 5 months, it will shine a laser at the clouds. If there are complex molecules within these clouds, the nephelometer should see the clouds fluoresce, or glow, when struck by the laser.
“If we see fluorescence, we know something interesting is in the cloud particles,” explains 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 probe will also measure the shape of the molecules, which will further indicate whether they are simple or complex in nature.
“(Venus life) 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,” the release explains. “Or, in theory, Venus cloud-life could rely on a biochemistry capable of tolerating sulfuric acid, distinct from anything on Earth.”
OUTLOOK: MORE VENUS MISSIONS LIKELY TO FOLLOW
Regardless of what that first mission finds, the follow up is already in the planning stages, including a proposed 2026 launch date. According to the news release, “that probe would involve a larger payload, with a balloon that could spend more time in Venus’ clouds and conduct more extensive experiments.”