Dec 14, 2021 - Science

A private mission to Venus

A filtered image of Venus as seen by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.
A filtered image of Venus as seen by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL

A privately funded mission to Venus expected to launch in 2023 could kick off a series of launches that could help reveal whether Earth's "evil twin" once hosted — or still hosts — life.

Why it matters: A controversial study published in 2020 suggests there might be phosphine — a possible sign of microbial life — in the clouds of Venus, bolstering the case to return to the world.

  • Right now, space missions are primarily funded by government agencies like NASA. Privately funded interplanetary missions could fundamentally change how science is done, opening the door to new avenues of exploration.

Details: The mission, which is being planned by scientists from MIT, Georgia Tech, Purdue University, Caltech and the Planetary Science Institute, will make use of a probe sent to space by a Rocket Lab spacecraft.

  • A new report from the team explains the probe will come equipped with a laser designed to help it figure out what kind of chemistry is happening in droplets in Venus' atmosphere during a three-minute flight through the planet's clouds.
  • "Fluorescence or impurities detected in the droplets could indicate something more interesting than sulfuric acid might be wafting around up there, and add ammunition to the idea that parts of Venus’ atmosphere might be habitable," MIT wrote in a news release.
  • That mission is expected to launch in 2023, with another, larger mission into Venus' atmosphere being planned for 2026 that will build on the results of this one.
  • The 2026 mission could then lead to another that will actually bring a sample of the world's atmosphere back to Earth.

The big picture: NASA is also setting its sights on Venus. The space agency recently greenlighted two major missions to the cloudy, hot planet to learn more about its potential for past and even current life.

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