NASA could soon send a probe to Venus to study the atmosphere – hunting for alien life.
It comes as British scientists revealed that life could be producing an Earth-like gas in Venus’ clouds.
The extraordinary discovery means life – probably microbes – may be hidden in the toxic atmosphere of our nearest space neighbour.
Venus is largely uninhabitable for humans, with surface temperatures of 470C – and pressure so high you’d be crushed alive.
But the «hell planet» has a surprisingly temperate cloud zone 53km above the surface, where temperatures range between 20C and 37C – which may support life.
Earlier this year, Nasa selected a design concept for a probe that would study Venus’ atmosphere.
The proposed mission is named DaVinci+, and would be the first US spacecraft since 1978 to embark on such a journey.
«Our vision for DAVINCI+ is to send a chemistry lab and orbiter to Venus to put the planet into its appropriate context in our solar system,» said Jim Garvin, NASA Goddard’s chief scientist.
«Then we can compare Venus, Earth, and Mars — terrestrial sister planets that probably looked similar at birth, but somehow diverged paths quite drastically.»
It’s part of Nasa’s Discovery Program, which develops concept studies for new missions that could take place within the decade.
If given the all-clear, DaVinci+ would take off in 2026, making its way tens of millions of miles across space to Venus.
Once there, it would drop a spherical probe with sensitive instruments through the planets atmosphere.
This would allow Nasa scientists to acquire the first high-precision chemistry measurements of Venus’ atmosphere.
That includes the top of the Venusian clouds right down to near the surface – where carbon dioxide gas is under such high pressure that it behaves more like a liquid.
An imaging system would provide the first high-resolution images and mapping data for Venus’ Alpha Regional’s mountainous region.
And months after releasing the probe, the DaVinci+ spacecraft itself would enter orbit to map the planet for a full Venusian year – around 225 Earth days.
Ultraviolet images would let scientists study the upper atmosphere and cloud deck.
And infrared images would reveal Venus’ ancient geology.
“Goddard and partners are very excited to have this opportunity to try to bring the U.S. back to Venus, a frontier often forgotten since it is technically challenging,” said Stephanie Getty, who will be deputy principal investigator on the project.
Nasa will decide whether to go ahead with this mission by summer 2021.
The probe could be key to proving the possibility that life could exist on Venus.
It follows a breakthrough by British scientists who recently found phosphine gas in Venus’ atmosphere.
Here on Earth, phosphine is made by the breakdown of organic matter – and the same could be true for Venus.
Phosphine can turn up on a planet in many different ways.
It can be created in the atmosphere, on the surface, or below the surface. And it can even be delivered from another planet.
On Venus, the phosphine was detected around 60km above the surface – in the cloudy atmosphere.
And scientists say it’s unclear how this could happen without help from alien life.
Sadly, there’s no 100% guarantee that life is hiding away on Venus – yet.
«We emphasise that the detection of phosphine is not robust evidence for life,» said Professor Jane Greaves, of Cardiff University, who led the team that made the discovery.
«However, we have ruled out many chemical routes to phosphine, with the most likely ones falling short by four to eight orders of magnitude.»
Phosphine is widely accepted as being a «promising sign of life», when found in a rocky planet’s atmosphere.