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Billionaire boosts missions to the clouds of Venus

Breakthrough Initiatives, a space science program founded by Russian-Israeli tech billionaire Yuri Milner, says it’s funding a study that will follow up on this week’s controversial findings about the potential for life in the clouds of Venus.

The study could lead to a range of concepts for space missions to Venus, adding to several proposals that are already under consideration by NASA and other space agencies.

MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, one of the authors of the research paper published this week in Nature Astronomy, is leading the Breakthrough Initiatives’ project as principal investigator. There’s already a website devoted to the study, VenusCloudLife.com, and a virtual kickoff meeting is set for Sept. 18, she told me today.

Among other leaders of the Venus Life Finder Mission Concept Study are MIT’s Janusz Petkowski and William Bains, two of the co-authors of the Nature Astronomy study; Georgia Tech’s Chris Carr; Caltech’s Bethany Ehlmann; the Planetary Science Institute’s David Grinspoon; and Pete Klupar, chief engineer of the Breakthrough Initiatives.

The study group will follow up on findings suggesting that a biomarker known as phosphine or PH3 is present within a potentially habitable band of clouds surrounding the hellishly hot planet. Phosphine can be produced by non-biological processes, but the team behind this week’s published findings said they could not explain how it was present at the detected levels unless biology was involved.

For decades, scientists have debated whether life might exist in the clouds of Venus — specifically, within a layer that’s between 30 and 40 miles above the surface. That’s the only place in the planet’s environment where water could exist in liquid form, and even there, the atmosphere contains droplets of highly corrosive sulfuric acid. Finding life is a long shot, but it’s a shot Milner thinks is worth taking.

“Finding life anywhere beyond Earth would be truly momentous,” Milner said in a news release. “And if there’s a non-negligible chance that it’s right next door on Venus, exploring that possibility is an urgent priority for our civilization.”

Breakthrough Initiatives is already funding several $100 million space projects — including an expanded search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and a project to send fleets of life-seeking nanoprobes through the Alpha Centauri star system. Milner has also provided resources for exoplanet studies and a potential mission to Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that may harbor life.

The budget for the Venus mission concept study is nowhere near $100 million. Seager said via email that the study will get a “few hundred thousand” dollars in support from the Breakthrough Initiatives, and that “we aim to have ‘in-kind’ contributions, i.e., work contributed, that push that number much higher.”

“It’s not really a huge amount for mission studies, but we are leveraging the formal study to get lots of people from the community to contribute,” she explained during a separate phone conversation. “We’ve got scientists, engineers, and we also have some industrial partners joining … but the study is just starting.”

One of those partners is Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, which has already said it’s aiming to send a probe toward Venus in the 2023-2024 time frame, using its low-cost Electron rocket.

Seager said Rocket Lab’s plan would be classified as a small mission concept. Such a concept envisions having a cruise vehicle drop off a descent capsule with a few kilograms’ worth of scientific instruments. The instruments would analyze Venus’ atmospheric composition for up to 10 minutes, potentially confirming the presence of phosphine and looking for other chemical signs of life.

Medium mission concepts would involve sending an inflatable balloon to Venus on a bigger rocket as a piggyback payload. The mission would be similar to what the Soviets did in the 1980s when they sent balloon-borne instruments into the Venusian atmosphere. Those probes transmitted data for a couple of days before their batteries gave out.

Such missions could accommodate an arsenal of scientific instruments amounting to as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds).

“They could go beyond just detecting gases,” Seager told me. “They could analyze the liquid droplets in Venus’ atmosphere. They could try to identify complex molecules, like heavier molecules of the types that are only associated with life. And we’d like to imagine having a microscope on board. We could collect droplets and concentrate them and see if there’s anything that might resemble any kinds of life.”

Large mission concepts would involve sending an orbiter as well as a long-lasting balloon platform to Venus for months of study.

Seager said she expects the Breakthrough Initiatives project to work in a collaborative fashion with other teams that have parallel proposals for missions to Venus.

Among the potential missions are DAVINCI+, which aims to send a probe through Venus’ clouds; and VERITAS, which is designed to map Venus’ geology. Those mission concepts are among four finalists  in NASA’s Discovery Program, along with concepts for missions to the Jovian moon Io and the Neptunian moon Triton. One or two of the concepts are to be selected for further funding next year.

“There is no doubt that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will have a tough time evaluating and selecting from among these very compelling targets and missions, but I know the process will be fair and unbiased,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this week.

But wait, there’s more: Plans for a NASA-led Venus Flagship Mission have been under discussion for years, and NASA is currently talking with the European Space Agency about an ambitious Venus mission concept called EnVision. Meanwhile, space scientists in Russia, India and China have their own ideas for missions to Venus.

A decade ago, the European Space Agency considered sending a balloon to Venus as part of a proposed mission called the European Venus Explorer, or EVE. That proposal fizzled out, but a different mission with a European connection, BepiColombo, should get a close-up look at Venus next month while on its way to Mercury.

The Oct. 15 flyby is the first of two close encounters with Venus on BepiColombo’s itinerary. During each of those flybys, the probe could use its thermal infrared spectrometer to check for signs of phosphine and anything else that could help scientists plan for future missions.

“If they have the right instrument and they can take a look at Venus, that’d be awesome,” Seager said. “It would be great to get whatever observations we can.”

Update for 9:25 a.m. PT Sept. 17: I’ve updated this report with Seager’s comments on how much support will be provided by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Read more: David Grinspoon weighs in on Venus

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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