MIT leads the hunt for life in the atmosphere of Venus


Forget the David Bowie classic for a moment: Life on Venus has become the case of space of the day, after a disputed study last year found traces of a chemical called phosphine in the acidic atmosphere of our nearest neighbor – what its authors claimed could to be a sign of life.

Now, a group of MIT-led research institutes are looking to fix the problem, with a privately funded Venus life search that aims to launch multiple missions starting in 2023.

“We hope this is the start of a new paradigm where you go less cost, more often, and in a more targeted manner,” said Sara Seager, professor at MIT and principal investigator of the Venus Life Finder missions.

“It’s a newer, more agile, and faster way to do space science. It’s very MIT.

Earth’s “evil twin”: As Discover Magazine points out, life on Venus wouldn’t be really easy. The planet’s surface temperature is nearly 900 F (480 C), with atmospheric pressure 90 times the pressure on Earth – roughly like living 3,000 feet under a boiling sea.

Oh, and the atmosphere is full sulfuric acid.

No wonder Axios’s Miriam Kramer calls him Earth’s “evil twin”.

“We think it’s disruptive, and that’s the MIT style. We operate on exactly that line between the mainstream and the madman. “

Sara seager

But while the surface of Venus appears designed to destroy life, this acidic atmosphere actually becomes something closer to habitable if you climb high enough. Once you find yourself about 40 miles above the Venusian Pressure Cooker, the temperature and pressure start to look like something close to Earth, according to reports from Discover.

Of course, as MIT notes, it’s still billions of times more acidic than anywhere on our soft blue marble, and it’s drier than the driest desert.

But researchers have kept their eyes on this relative oasis.

“The concept of life in the clouds of Venus is not new, it has been around for over half a century,” the researchers wrote in their study of the Venus Life Finder mission.

What is The new thing is that we now have the technology advanced enough – and small enough – to pick it up.

A new search for life on Venus: Venus is actually a better target in the search for life than you might think, due to its surprisingly Earth-like cloud layers. These layers exhibit many “atmospheric chemical anomalies,” as the study puts it, suggesting unknown chemistry, which can be a sign of life (or at least a place where interesting things are happening).

According to MIT, this weird chemistry includes weird reports of water, oxygen, and sulfur dioxide, as well as “cloud particles of unknown composition,” which is 100% something you’d hear mentioned in the first act of space horror. movie.

“If we see the fluorescence, we know that something of interest is in the particles of the cloud.”

Sara seager

Add to that list the controversial phosphine discoveries Seager was involved in last year.

People have been talking about Venus for a long time, but there hasn’t been a lot of action – we haven’t delved into this atmosphere since the Duran Duran era. “But we’ve come up with a new suite of focused, miniaturized instruments to do the job in particular,” Seager said.

Namely, the science fiction named autofluorescent nephelometer.

The small, lightweight, cost-effective, and quick-to-build tool will cause a laser to shine through a window on the probe into the Venusian atmosphere, which will hopefully cause some molecules to glow, a common trait of organic molecules.

“If we see fluorescence, we know that something of interest is in the particles in the clouds,” Seager said. “We cannot guarantee which organic molecule it is, or even be certain that it is an organic molecule. But it’s going to tell you that something incredibly interesting is going on.

The instrument will also use the laser reflection to measure the shape of the droplets. The pure sulfuric acid droplets should be pretty round, so any deviation suggests… well, something else. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, even life on Venus.

“Between mainstream and madness:” Currently, the first probe is scheduled to launch in May 2023. While NASA and the European Space Agency Also have planned missions, nor seek life on Venus.

And the Venus Life Finder mission, with its private funding, could be a model for the future of academic space exploration – much like how private capital feeds off commercial rockets.

“We think it’s disruptive,” Seager said. “And that’s the MIT style. We operate on exactly that line between the mainstream and the madman. “

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