New Ambitious Mission Concepts Could Find Signs of Life on Venus

Private-public partnerships are about to go interplanetary.
Brad Bergan
A composite image of Venus, under the sun's bright glare.buradaki / iStock

Earth's twin sister is holding a secret.

It could be new chemical anomalies, or it could also be life itself. This is why a team of scientists has proposed a suite of new missions to explore Venus and seek regions of habitability, signs of life, and perhaps even life itself somewhere in the planet's atmosphere, according to a study recently shared on a preprint server.

Notably, the scientists emphasized the need for these missions to supplement, and not supplant NASA and the ESA's forthcoming missions to Venus, with public-private partnerships.

To be clear: if these mission concepts gain funding, the defining feature of Space Race 2.0 — space ventures operated by private firms — will be going interplanetary.

The clouds of Venus might hold conditions favorable to alien life

Humans have speculated about the possibility of life existing in the clouds of Venus' clouds for decades, but now we can finally take action, and find out — with concrete goals on cost-effective missions. One of the reasons we've remained so interested in our sister planet's potential for habitable conditions is the presence of unexplained atmospheric chemical anomalies, like the "mysterious UV-absorber", the apparent abundance of O2, SO2, and H20, and more. These and even more pressing anomalies have remained for decades, and could be linked to living material. That alone is more than enough to merit further in-situ exploration. And the team of scientists behind the recent study proposes a means of doing exactly that.

"Our proposed series of VLF (Venus Life Finder) missions aim to study Venus' cloud particles and to continue where the pioneering in situ probe missions from nearly four decades ago left off," read the study's abstract. The VLF mission concepts include three probes sent directly to Venus' atmosphere, and each is designed to optimize its equipment to meet the needs of different investigations. The mission concepts came on the heels of an 18-month study led by MIT, and involved a consortium of global researchers. And, while NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have already selected other missions to visit our sister planet near the end of the decade (DAVINCI+, VERITAS, and EnVision), the researchers argue that these missions are only designed for general studies of the planet's properties. In other words, they will leave the many questions surrounding habitable conditions in Venus' clouds unanswered.

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"Remarkably, it has been nearly 40 years since the last Venus in situ measurements," read the study. "Russian Vega balloons and landers flew in 1985 and the U.S. Pioneer Venus probes flew in 1978. The entire scientific field of astrobiology has sprung up in the interim," which means the time is ripe for a privately-financed suite of goal-oriented missions to Venus could seize on an open window in mission architectures surrounding the planet, executing "high-risk, high-reward science, which stands to possibly answer one of the greatest scientific mysteries of all, and in the process pioneer a new model of private/public partnership in space exploration."

In case you missed it, public-private partnerships have become the new normal for human space travel, where aerospace firms like Elon Musk's SpaceX design, build, and operate spacecraft with money from the federal government, and NASA. In other words, your tax dollars. But so far, no private aerospace company has launched a mission beyond the local neighborhood of Earth and its moon. If any of these newly proposed missions to Venus receive adequate funding and development, we could be witnessing the beginning of the next stage of private-public space ventures: interplanetary missions. It's an exciting time to be alive, if not for the science itself, then for the surprising turns in how we make it happen. Someday it may be a CEO, not a NASA officer, who tells us that life exists on an alien world.

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