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A space probe was already headed for Venus before the ‘life’ debate began

Published Sep 23rd, 2020 5:02PM EDT
venus life
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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  • A space probe is about to fly by Venus, and it could help search for the faint signatures of life in the planet’s atmosphere.
  • The BepiColombo probe is slated to make a pass of Venus next month, but it will be at a great distance from the planet, possibly minimizing the chances of detecting a biosignature.
  • The second flyby, which will happen in 2021, will come much closer, offering better odds of detecting signs of life.

The science world has been buzzing for a couple of weeks now after the discovery of what appears to be a biosignature in the atmosphere of Venus. Researchers spotted the existence of phosphine in the planet’s upper atmosphere, and we know that phosphine can be created by biological processes. So, does that mean there’s life on Venus? We don’t know yet, but a space probe that was already planning on a Venus flyby could offer us some new clues.

The BepiColombo probe is a joint mission between the European and Japanese space programs, and while it wasn’t sent into space specifically to look for life, it may have the ability to give us more details about the presence of phosphine in the atmosphere.

BepiColombo was launched back in 2018, and it has a number of milestones on its mission. Two of those are flybys of Venus, and it will perform its first trip past the planet in October of this year. That’s incredibly fortuitous, as the spacecraft is equipped with an instrument called MERTIS, which is an infrared spectrometer.

MERTIS was built for studying Mercury, which is the spacecraft’s other destination, but it’s possible that the tool could pick up signs of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus as it cruises by. The mission team isn’t promising anything, saying that they don’t know for sure whether or not the MERTIS instrument is even sensitive enough to be able to detect the traces of phosphine, but they’re going to give it a try anyway.

The first flyby will be at a significant distance from the planet — over 6,000 miles from the surface — so the chances of detecting the phosphine are much less than if it were closer. However, the second flyby is the really exciting one. When that close pass happens, which is slated for August of 2021, the spacecraft will come within 350 miles of the planet, giving it a much better shot at detecting phosphine in its atmosphere.

It’s a pretty exciting time for anyone who dreams of one day learning of extraterrestrial life in space. It’s clear that there’s no civilization on Venus, and its surface is so hostile to life as we know it that it’s far from the most likely candidate to host life in any form. Still, if microbes have managed to survive around the planet, that life could provide clues in our search for life elsewhere in the cosmos.