Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a plan to look for signs of life on Venus. The first mission starts in 2023. The probe on board the Foton spacecraft will go to Venus on a 5-month, 61-million-km journey.
For the mission, a laser device was developed to study cloud droplets of Venus. Scientists expect to find substances other than sulfuric acid there, in order to prove that some areas of Venus can be habitable.
Sarah Seeger, head of the study, notes that much less research has been done on Venus and this is unfair. Recent studies of the planet’s atmosphere in the 1980s have been limited by instrument capabilities.
“There are long-standing mysteries on Venus that we cannot solve unless we go there,” Seager adds. “These are chemical anomalies that make life possible. If there is life on Venus, then it is of the microbial type, and it is most likely located inside the particles of the clouds. ”
Chemical anomalies are unexplained ratios of sulfur dioxide, oxygen, and water. The greenhouse effect prevents water from forming on the hot surface of Venus, while its clouds high in the atmosphere maintain temperatures suitable for life. Clouds are composed of concentrated sulfuric acid, billions of times more acidic than any habitat on Earth. The atmosphere outside the clouds is dry, 50 to 100 times drier than the Atacama Desert in Chile. While Venus’s atmosphere may be too dry for life, scientists believe there are habitable regions with relatively high humidity.
Researchers believe life is preserved in sulfuric acid droplets in a variety of ways. It is found in the vesicles of acid-resistant lipids and neutralizes sulfuric acid by producing ammonia. It lowers the pH of sulfuric acid to a level carried by microbes on Earth.
Once the probe is in the atmosphere of Venus, the device will shine a laser at the cloud particles, causing the molecules inside them to light up or fluoresce. It will also measure the light that is reflected off the droplets to determine their shape. Drops of pure sulfuric acid should be spherical.
The second mission is scheduled for 2026. The probe will be equipped with a balloon that can spend more time in the clouds of Venus and study its atmosphere on a larger scale.