Sep 15, 2020 - Science

A return to Venus

Illustration of the planet Venus being examined under a microscope

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The discovery of possible sign of life on Venus is buoying a push by many in the planetary science community to get NASA and other space agencies to send missions to Venus that could sniff out if there really is life there.

Why it matters: NASA hasn't sent a dedicated spacecraft to study Venus from close range in about 30 years, with much of the hunt for life in the solar system focusing instead on Mars.

  • Researchers now think the discovery of phosphine in Venus' atmosphere could propel the hunt for life in a new direction — toward Venus.
  • "I think the '20s could explode as a time when Venus becomes a key part of this wonderful triad of Earth, Venus, Mars, as the end members — the bookends — of how habitable worlds do their thing," James Garvin, a planetary scientist at NASA, told Axios.

Details: While Venus has gotten the short end of the exploration stick for a number of years, scientists have still worked to develop various missions that could investigate the planet from close range.

  • New technology could allow a probe to land and survive on Venus' surface, giving scientists a more clear picture of the world than ever before.
  • Another possible mission called DAVINCI+ could parse out the layers of Venus' atmosphere, potentially providing insights into the origin of the phosphine.
  • Those missions could get a boost in priority thanks to this new discovery.

Background: NASA's Mars exploration program got a huge boost with the 1990s discovery of a Martian meteorite that appeared to show a sign of life within it.

  • This phosphine discovery could be that moment for Venus, even if it doesn't prove to be a sign of life after all.

What to watch: NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter Monday that "it's time to prioritize Venus."

  • Rocket Lab has also been developing a mission to Venus, with plans to launch to the nearby world in 2023.
  • Breakthrough Initiatives is also funding work to look into the possibilities for life in Venus' clouds.
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