October 2, 2022

The first private mission to Venus will have just five minutes to hunt for life

The first private mission to Venus will have just five minutes to hunt for life

Inside the probe will be a single instrument weighing only two pounds. There is no camera on board to take images as the probe falls through the clouds of Venus—there simply isn’t the radio power or time for it to radiate much back to Earth. “We have to be very, very sparing with the data we send back,” says Beck.

However, it is not images that scientists are looking for, but a close inspection of Venus’ clouds. This will be provided by an autofluorescent nephelometer, a device that will shine an ultraviolet laser on droplets in Venus’ atmosphere to determine the composition of molecules in them. As the probe descends, the laser will shine outward through a small window. This will excite complex molecules – possibly including organic compounds – in the droplets, causing them to fluoresce.

“We’re going to look for organic particles in the cloud droplets,” says Seager. Such a discovery would not be proof of life – organic molecules can be created in ways that have nothing to do with biological processes. But if they were found, it would be a step “towards us looking at Venus as a potentially habitable environment,” Seager says.

Only direct measurements in the atmosphere can look at the types of life we ​​think may still exist on Venus. Orbiting spacecraft can tell us a lot about the planet’s broad features, but to really understand it we need to send probes to study it more closely. The effort by Rocket Lab and MIT is the first with such a clear focus on life, although the Soviet Union and the US sent probes to Venus in the 20th century.

The mission won’t search for phosphine itself, because an instrument that can do that won’t fit inside the probe, Seager says. But that could be a task for NASA’s DAVINCI+ mission, which will launch in 2029.

probe shown along the planned trajectory through the Venusian atmosphere
A graph illustrating the probe’s planned descent through the Venusian atmosphere


The Rocket Lab-MIT mission will be short. As the probe falls, it will have just five minutes in the clouds of Venus to conduct its experiment and send its data back to Earth as it descends to the surface. Additional data can be taken below the clouds if the probe survives. An hour after entering the atmosphere of Venus, the probe will hit the ground. Communication will probably be lost for some time before that.

Jane Greaves, who led the initial study of phosphine on Venus, says she is looking forward to the mission. “I’m very excited about it,” she says, adding that it has a “high chance” of detecting organic matter, which “could mean life is there.”

Seager hopes this is just the beginning. Her team is planning future missions to Venus that will be able to follow up on the results of this preliminary look into the atmosphere. One idea is to place balloons in the clouds, like the Soviet Vega balloons in the 1980s, that can conduct longer surveys.

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