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Venus’ surface is the epitome of inhospitality – hot enough to melt lead, sulphuric acid lingering makes up the best part of its atmosphere. Despite this, scientists have found evidence to suggest that a chemical that should not exist on the planet, in fact does. And the presence of this element suggests Venus may well host life.
In research by Cardiff University that has shocked the astronomical community, scientists have found phosphine gas: a key biological signature.
The discovery is nothing less than a paradox; with soaring temperatures and lack of oxygen, the gas should technically disappear within minutes if it ever pops into existence.
It will only further the science community’s desperation to better understand the second planet from the Sun.
Previous robots that have been sent to Venus have never lasted more than two hours.
Scientists have, since 2018, been working towards boiling a rover that could outlast its predecessors, dubbed Venera-D.
In spite of the positive discoveries and engineering developments, Tracy Gregg, a planetary geologist at the University at Buffalo and US co-chair of the binational science definition committee for Venera-D, revealed that it wouldn’t be years until researchers could even think about making on land discoveries about Venus.
She said: “Nothing’s being built right now, we’re not at that nuts-and-bolts stage.
“We’re at the pen-and-paper stage where we’re considering what science questions do we want this mission to answer and what components of a mission would best answer those questions.
“The earliest possible launch date we’d be looking at is 2026, and who knows if we could meet that.”
Ultimately, the voyages would be to uncover Venus’ mysterious intricacies which Ms Gregg summed up during an interview with Space.com two years ago: “Venus just is weird; it’s got stuff going on that nobody has been able to explain.”
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The endeavour is a joint venture between NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
NASA has historically struggled with Venus missions and has focused its efforts on Mars instead; while Roscosmos has experienced the reverse, with several successful Venus missions under its belt.
The two want to create a new type of Venus mission that would see a lander that could survive the planet’s deadly surface not just for days, but months, sending back crucial scientific knowledge to help us better understand Venus and our own planet.
It has left the scientists with a Christmas list of wishes, but, as Ms Gregg explained: “What does the team want? We want everything, but that’s not very helpful.”
Instead, specific missions goals are being drawn up one at a time, for example, like landing during the Venusian day.
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Since the planet rotates backwards, with a day lasting longer than a year, Ms Gregg said: “Being able to observe that change from day to night would be amazing.”
Any future rover will also be required to explore the miles long volcanic channels that bypass much of the planet’s surface.
Plenty of evidence for volcanic activity – including the most recent by Cardiff University – has been found on Venus, including a 5,500-mile long channel longer than the River Nile.
Of this, Ms Gregg said: “That channel on Venus could not have been carved by water, it had to have been made by lava.
“Even if you don’t know anything about geology, your response is…’Wow that’s weird.'”.
It is not only Venus’ mysterious allure that excites scientists.
The planet is closer to Earth than Mars, where NASA has focused much of its energy in the last few decades.
Venus has mostly been used as a pit stop for rovers travelling to Mars to use its gravitational pull as a slingshot.
Meanwhile, Jane Greaves, the Cardiff University researcher who made Venus’ phosphine gas discovery, said she was “stunned” when finding the element.
She explained: “We looked at all sources on the surface, photochemistry in the atmosphere, and energetic events like a meteor strike or volcano going off.
“We just couldn’t make it go away.”
Phosphine rapidly reacts and disappears; to be present it must be replenished.
It is, as Professor Greaves found, not made by any known chemical or geological process on Venus: it is, however, made by life.
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