In the last few years, the world has witnessed an invigorated pursuit of space exploration. Not only are several nations advancing their space programs, but private companies are getting in on the mix as well. Companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and others are having progressive success as well. This, along with government policies and funding, have created a new vision of the future. But nothing incites passion for space exploration like the possibility of life beyond Earth. This is why recent discoveries are shifting perspectives about the best direction future space launches should pursue.
Recently, ground-based telescopes discovered a gas known as phosphine in the clouds of Venus. This may not seem too impressive, but in terms of science, it’s significant. Phosphine is not a gas expected from a plant with 90 times the amount of carbon dioxide as Earth. Instead, its presence strong suggests that some kind of life form produced the gas and exist in Venus’ atmosphere. If life on Venus indeed exists, then a major change in space missions will likely occur. Of course, investigating whether or not life on Venus exists is much harder than you might imagine.
“After a mad foray, a flourish of attempts to understand Venus in the ’70s and early ’80s, there was a hiatus and it’s actually been 35 years since any mission by any country on this planet has visited the atmosphere of Venus.” – James Garvin, Planetary Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland
Past Space Exploration Efforts of Venus
Believe it or not, space exploration of Venus dates back to the 1960s. The U.S. launched Mariner 2 in 1962 to explore gradient temperatures in the planet’s atmosphere. But by far, most of the information we have learned about Venus came from the Soviet space program. Several Soviet space missions occurred that better defined what we now known about Venus as a planet. While other explorations occurred in the 1980s into the early 1990s, none have taken place recently. Of course, that is now likely to change with the potential of life on Venus. After all, mankind likes to embrace challenges when it comes to space exploration–and getting to Venus would certainly be a challenge!
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Multiple versions of the Soviet Venera spacecrafts revealed that Venus poses serious environmental challenges. For one, its surface temperature exceeds 850 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, it also has excessive pressure on its surface that is nearly 100 atm. As a result of this pressure, the Soviets saw its early versions of Venera squashed like an aluminum can. In addition to these discoveries, Venus is believed to have over 85 percent of its surface covered in old lava flows. This accounts for its smooth but cracked terrain that is enveloped in a greenish, neon-colored gas. None of these features make space exploration of the planet easy.
“If this planet is active and is producing phosphine, and there is something that’s making it in the Venus atmosphere, then by God almighty, forget this Mars nonsense.” – Paul Byrne, Planetary Scientist, North Carolina State University
Does Life on Venus Exist or Not?
The recent discovery of phosphine certainly is an interesting finding in relationship to the life on Venus question. Prior to this discovery, Venus’s temperature, pressure, and atmosphere was not believed to be conducive to life. The research basically used a method called spectral analysis that sampled images from Venus using a telescope. Essentially, the sampling showed a chemical fingerprint that is consistent with the gas phosphine. Its presence implies that something living produced the gas, but that’s about as much as we know. In order to determine whether this is actually the case, direct space exploration is needed.
Other alternatives exist. For instance, the phosphine could have appeared from some type of chemical reaction yet to be defined. Though scientists believe this to be less likely, it remains a possibility. Likewise, the spectral readings found the phosphine more than 30 miles above the planet’s surface. This raises additional questions about how life might survive within the planet’s poisonous-appearing clouds. The question about life on Venus is therefore far from being answered. Regardless, the phosphine discovery has energized new ideas about future space exploration missions.
“This is something more that we can’t explain about Venus. Venus has got more questions [about it] than Mars, which is why we are suggesting that Venus should be considered an astrobiology target.” – Sanjay Limaye, Atmospheric Scientist, University of Wisconsin, Madison
A Change in Space Exploration Plans
For some time now, space exploration efforts have focused on the Earth’s moon and on Mars. The U.S. space program wishes to establish a moon-based presence first from which other space missions launch. Elon Musk and SpaceX has identified Mars as a potential destination long-term. But few have considered Venus until now. The only current orbiter around the planet is Japan’s Akatsuki. India has plans to launch a similar mission called Shukrayaan-1 in 2023. And Rocket Lab, a private company in New Zealand, has also suggested such a pursuit. The potential for life on Venus will further encourage these planned space projects.
As far as the U.S., two space exploration missions are currently being considered that involve Venus. DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus) is one of these. It would travel through Venus’ atmosphere, sampling as it goes, and would also collect information about its terrain and atmosphere. VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy) represents the second proposal. It would be interested in creating a detailed topographical map of Venus’ entire surface and its geology. Of these, DAVINCI+ would be the one to confirm the presence or absence of phosphine.
A New Space Exploration Race
The possibility of life on Venus will undoubtedly persuade many space programs to change directions. Japan, India, and even the European Space Agency (ESA) already have space exploration projects in the works. ESA’s EnVision is set to launch in 2032 as a Venus orbiter. But other national space programs will soon be jumping on board. And with the recent success of companies like SpaceX, private industry will also likely play a role in these pursuits. With so many questions to be answered, intrigue will certainly fuel an entirely new race for space. For now, Venus is likely to be focus as the hottest planet to explore… literally and figuratively.