Recently scientists announced the discovery of phosphine gas at Venus with two different telescopes. Phosphine is a smelly, flammable, and noxious gas, and finding it in the Venusian atmosphere could be compelling evidence of life on the planet.
On Earth, phosphine can be made only by life – whether human or microbes. Phosphine gas is still manufactured as an agricultural fumigant and also used in the semiconductor industry. It is also produced naturally by some species of anaerobic bacteria. Off-planet, the only known source, is deep inside gas giants.
Venus is a rocky planet and not a gas giant. The presence of decaying organic matter also seems unlikely. Venus has a thick atmosphere, and surface temperatures could reach a balmy 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are no asteroid craters on the surface that are smaller than 3km. Incoming objects that are less than 160 feet /50m in diameter burn up before reaching the ground. Atmospheric pressure is so high it creates a type of lava flow not seen on Earth. In summary, Venus presents a condition not conducive for life to exist. In short, there is no good explanation for the presence of phosphine in Venus clouds, or even confirmation if it exists.
This is where BepiColombo, the Mercury bound probe, could help. BepiColombo is a joint mission to Mercury by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It comprises of two satellites launched together – the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Mio (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, MMO).
The probe is about to slingshot past Venus on October 15th, 2020. The first flyby will be at a fair distance of 10,663km above the surface. However, in August 2021, BepiColombo will be as much as 550km from the surface.
The Mercury Radiometer and Thermal Infrared Spectrometer (MERTIS) aboard the Bepicolombo is designed to study Mercury’s surface composition by measuring the content of the light reflected off the surface. In theory, this instrument can detect the presence of phosphine in the Venus atmosphere. According to Jörn Helbert from the German Aerospace Center and co-lead on the MERTIS instrument, “There actually is something in the spectral range of MERTIS. So we are now seeing if our sensitivity is good enough to do observations.”
The second flyby in August of next year is expected to have a much better chance of detecting phosphine. According to scientists, even a negative result won’t necessarily mean phosphine is not present as this detection attempt will be at the very limit of what MERTIS is designed to do. But, BepiColombo is the only spacecraft in the area that can attempt to check for phosphine.
If phosphine is verified, it wouldn’t automatically mean the source is organic. But it could be a confirmation that an unknown or unexplainable chemical reaction is occurring in a place it shouldn’t be, which could be exciting. If the source turns out to be some kind of life form, then it would mean we are not alone in the universe.
The chances of finding microscopic life in the clouds of Venus are remote but not zero. There will be a lot of focus on BepiColombo as it flies past Venus in October, and again when it returns on August 10th, 2021.
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