Will NASA send its 63-minute mission to find phosphine and “proof of life?” “

You’ve probably read the amazing new that traces of phosphine – considered a biological signature for life – have been found in the cloud tops of Venus.

It may not be life, and it certainly is not life as we know it. Maybe he’s some kind of weird extremophile. This is probably a completely unknown chemistry. What is paper published this week really shows that we don’t know enough about Venus and its dense atmosphere.

In short, we must send a spacecraft – several – into the atmosphere of Venus where no mission has ventured since 1985.

Luckily, NASA has one in the works that can serve as a “proof of life” mission. During its 63-minute descent, DAVINCI + would collect and return the measurements of Venus. atmospheric composition.

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Researchers will be aiming more telescopes at Venus, but ultimately it would be helpful for a spacecraft to take in situ measurements of the atmosphere.

Cue DAVINCI + (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gas, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus), a NASA Discovery Program finalist this year, which is now in Phase A of concept development. NASA must make a decision on its prosecution in 2021.

DAVINCI + would involve a descent probe that, during its 63-minute trip to the surface of Venus, would collect and return measurements of the planet’s atmosphere and search for phosphine.

What is DAVINCI +?

Named after visionary Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, it is an orbiter and spherical descent probe that will study the largely unexplored deep atmosphere of Venus.

The descent probe, which is essentially a chemistry lab, will dive into the atmosphere, down to the surface, to measure the molecules that make up each layer. It will acquire the first high-precision atmospheric chemistry measurements taken from the tops of the clouds of Venus to the near surface.

The “+” in DAVINCI + refers to the descent sphere and orbiter cameras designed to map the various rocks on the surface.

Could DAVINCI + confirm the existence of phosphine in Venus?

Yes. It includes two analytical instruments, the Venus Mass Spectrometer (VMS) and the Venus Tunable Laser Spectrometer (VTLS), specially designed to measure gas traces about 70 km from the surface.

So, if phosphine is sufficiently abundant in lower clouds and haze layers and in the deeper atmosphere, then phosphine can be sought.

“DAVINCI + will measure the compositional and dynamic context of interesting gases such as phosphine – and possibly others as yet undiscovered,” said Dr. James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and DAVINCI + principal investigator, tome.

At present, scientists do not have adequate measurements of the distribution of gases in the atmosphere of Venus. “We don’t have enough information to rule out more exotic processes potentially responsible for unforeseen phosphorous gases such as phosphine,” Garvin said. “The measures proposed by DAVINCI + could directly provide an essential chemical context. ”

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What is phosphine and why is it so important?

Phosphine (PH3) is an unforeseen tracer gas that appears to challenge our current understanding of the phosphorus cycle in the atmosphere of Venus.

“DAVINCI + will carry a sophisticated, integrated payload on our descent probe that would fill some of the major gaps that we still don’t understand about the atmosphere of Venus,” said Dr Stephanie Getty, DAVINCI + deputy principal investigator. “The detection of a single biologically significant gas like phosphine is truly exciting, and its importance to Earth’s biology cannot be ignored.”

However, this does not means that there is life on Venus. “Until we understand the phosphorus cycle and the distribution of phosphorus species in the atmosphere, it will be difficult to fully interpret these results,” Getty said.

What else will DAVINCI + do?

The orbiter would map the planet for a full year of Venus – 225 Earth days – and capture ultraviolet images of the diurnal side of Venus that would allow further study of the highest atmosphere and the cloudy bridge.

Night side, it would capture infrared images of the highlands of the planet.

When was the last time NASA was on Venus?

The space agency has ignored Venus since its Magellan Mission in the 1990s who mapped its surface.

Europe Venus Express in orbit around Venus for eight years from 2006 and that of Japan Akatsuki has been in orbit since 2015, but not since Pioneer-Venus in 1978, NASA sent a probe to the planet closest to Earth.

The last lander was that of the USSR Vega 1 in 1985, which took the only scientific measurements of phosphorus in Venus’ atmosphere as it descended to the surface.

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What other missions is DAVINCI + facing?

DAVINCI + is a potential mission competing against others to be selected by NASA’s Discovery program, which funds medium-sized missions designed to unravel the mysteries of the solar system. The other three finalists are:

  • Trident: go explore Triton, a unique and very active icy moon of Neptune.
  • VERITAS (Emissivity of Venus, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy): will map the surface of Venus to determine the geological history of the planet.
  • IVO (IO Volcano Observer): IVO would be the first mission dedicated to the exploration of Io, the most volcanically active world in the solar system. It could be launched at the end of 2028 or 2029 and reach Io 3.5 years later.

Concept study reports on each of the four finalists are due to be submitted to NASA in November 2020, with presentations at NASA Headquarters in April 2021. The winner (s) are expected to be announced in the summer of 2021.

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

About Darnell Yu

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