In a recent paper accepted Contemporary Physicsa physicist from Imperial College London is using past missions and recent findings to encourage the importance of searching for life in the solar system’s most inhospitable atmosphere, Venus.
It comes as a 2020 announcement that claimed to have detected phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere was refuted by follow-up observations from NASA’s recently retired SOFIA aircraft in late 2022. Despite this, Dr. David Clements, reader in astrophysics at the Department of Physics at Imperial College London recently told Universe Today that “something strange is going on in the atmosphere of Venus.”
“The detection of phosphine has not gone away, and there are other anomalies, perhaps joined by the presence of ammonia,” Dr. Clements told Universe Today. “We don’t know the origin of these anomalies, and more work is needed, but they persist despite properly rigorous review. We may also begin to understand why different observations give seemingly contradictory results.”
For the study, Dr. Clements asks what life is and how we might search for it in the universe but with an eye on Venus, referring to the second planet from our sun in the paper as an “unlikely candidate for astrobiology.” Discusses the current and ancient conditions of Venus, along with the atmosphere of Venus and the alleged discovery of phosphine by ground telescopes From the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii in 2017 and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Millimeter Array in Chile in 2019, with follow-up observations by NASA’s SOFIA aircraft in 2021.
The study comes as NASA’s Cassini confirmed the presence of jets of water vapor emanating from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus in the first decade of the 21st century. NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rover is currently scouring the surface of Mars for signs of past life; NASA prepares to launch the Europa Clipper mission to examine Jupiter’s watery home planet, Europa in 2024; and launching the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan in 2027. But given all those potential targets for astrobiology, how much of a priority is the search for life in Venus’ atmosphere?
“More work is needed before we can add Venus to the list of prime locations for the possibility of life,” Dr. Clements told Universe Today. “This work is being done, both from the ground and off space missions. The interesting thing is that Venus is a more suitable target than (say) Europa or Enceladus, so missions there are cheaper and faster.”
One of NASA’s upcoming missions specifically designed to study the atmosphere of Venus is the DAVINCI mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2029 and reach Venus in 2031. With its suite of instruments, DAVINCI will examine Venus’s atmosphere like never before. This involves dropping a titanium probe across Atmosphere It will collect thousands of measurements as it descends to the surface for an hour. Scientists don’t expect it to survive the lander due to Venus’ crushing air pressure and scorching heat, but they hope to squeeze in roughly 20 minutes of extra science if it does.
“I think DAVINCI is going to be very important because it will be able to offer a much better ‘ground reality’ than we currently have,” Dr. Clements told Universe Today. “There is also the possibility that some additions to the instruments could add to their ability to search for specific things like phosphine and ammonia.”
With a wealth of data from past observations, along with upcoming missions to Venus, Dr. Clements told Universe Today that “the story of phosphine at Venus continues, more data is coming from Earth and space, and we still don’t know if the presence of phosphine is due to life or to some complex abiotic chemistry that we don’t currently understand.”
David L. Clements, Venus, Phosphine and the Possibility of Life, arXiv (2023). doi: 10.48550/arxiv.2301.05160
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