But Venus is a particularly hostile target. On the surface, temperatures are hot enough to melt lead and atmospheric pressure is high. In the atmosphere where researchers recently discovered phosphine, things are a little more bearable. Here the temperatures fluctuate around a mild 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the air pressure is slightly lower than at sea level on earth and the sun is visible through the clouds. Sure, these clouds are made of a corrosive sulfuric acid, and the high-altitude winds whip around the planet at tornado-like speeds. Still, it’s a paradise compared to the surface.
Many planetary researchers, including Carl Sagan, have long suspected that relatively clear conditions high above the surface of Venus could support microbial life. The recent evidence of phosphine in the upper Venusian atmosphere is the best evidence yet that this theory may contain anything. However, whether the phosphine indicates life or is just the result of some strange high temperature reaction that we don̵
If Beck’s vision comes true, Rocket Lab would be the first company to start a private interplanetary mission. While the Venus probe could certainly provide some interesting data about the planet’s atmosphere, some experts aren’t sure if the probe is big enough to carry the technology it needs to detect signs of phosphine, let alone life itself.
“Small probes like those proposed by Rocket Lab are unlikely to have the bulk to carry more sophisticated instruments like mass spectrometers. These are exactly the tools we need to really get to the heart of this phosphine detection, ”says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University. “The Rocket Lab mission could give us important physical measurements of the region of the atmosphere where this gas was detected, but to really answer that question, we need it at least A dedicated orbiter who searches for phosphine and then sets off for the clouds himself – not a descent probe, but a kind of air platform. “
Seager, who worked with Rocket Lab on his probe, says it should be possible to identify complex molecules that would not exist without life. “A probe without a parachute can last up to an hour, and there are instruments that take a second to measure,” she says. Still, she agrees with Byrne that an aerial platform is the ideal way to search for life on Venus.
It’s not a new idea. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union launched a pair of Venuslanders – Vega 1 and 2 – each of which released a probe and balloon as they descended to the surface. These probes were only transmitted for about a day before they went dark, but they worked in the part of Venus’ atmosphere where researchers found phosphine. Ballooning on Venus has only become more attractive since the Vega missions, after companies like Google showed that it was possible to keep large payloads aloft with balloons at high altitudes on Earth for months. In 2018, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory initiated a study of possible concepts of Venus balloon probes. The agency has also investigated whether the Venus Clouds could support crewed missions in air-like spacecraft. So far, however, none of these ideas has gone beyond a conceptual phase.
That doesn’t mean NASA is ignoring Earth’s fiery sister. Earlier this year, the agency announced the finalists for its next round of discovery missions, and two of the four missions selected for further study target Venus. One of the discovery proposals, Davinci +, is similar to the Rocket Lab planned Venus mission. NASA researchers plan to drop a spherical probe from a Venus orbiter that would slowly descend to the surface under a parachute. On the way down, it would use an on-board chemical laboratory to sniff gases in the atmosphere. It would focus on rare inert gases like krypton and neon that could shed light on the history of Venus, but there is a chance that it could also look for gases like phosphine, which are associated with living organisms. According to Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Davinci + scientists cannot speculate on the mission’s potential capabilities as the team battles it out in the agency’s Discovery program.