Jordan: When we talk about the possibility of life beyond this planet, and it seems like, like a good time to do that, we tend to focus on a couple of things. First, always on Mars, either to wonder whether it once had life and might again, or to wonder if we can leave Earth and go there. Preferably soon. Second, though, is to wonder about the vast reaches of the solar system and the universe, to think about whether or not there is life out there, aside from us. If we can just find some sign that there are other organisms out there on another planet, just waiting to be found, and maybe we can find them, and maybe we’re not alone. That’s the romantic version. What we don’t tend to think much about is our other planetary neighbour. So it’s kind of perfect that life might be just sitting there in a form we can’t imagine, right next door. And sometime in the next few years– that soon, if we’re lucky– we could pop over for a look, if we can figure out how to do that and not melt. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Neel Patel is the space reporter at the MIT technology review. Hello, Neel.
Neel: Hey, how are you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing pretty well. Happy to be talking about something off this planet at the moment.
Neel: For sure. A nice reprieve from current events.
Jordan: Yeah, and this is a fascinating topic. And maybe you can start by, for those of us who don’t have a much of a background in this stuff and who have spent all our science fiction-based time thinking about Mars, can you tell us a bit about Venus? You know, what’s it like there? Everything.
Neel: Sure, yeah, so Venus is long thought to have been a very inhospitable world. It’s almost like another Hell. It’s got very, very high temperatures that are thought to be over 450 degrees Celsius on the surface of the planet. Its surface pressures are thought to be 90 times stronger than what you might find on earth. It’s thought to have some very, very acidic clouds, and those clouds are actually why it shine so brightly in the night sky when it’s, you know, seen during the night time.
Jordan: Is that why we tend to focus our attention on Mars so much more than Venus?
Neel: I think we tend to focus our attention on Mars because yeah, Mars is thought to be a place that we can actually go visit ourselves. Venus is interesting for so many reasons, but we’re never, ever going to see a time in our future when you see human colonists or human explorers venturing down below those clouds towards the surface. Mars is, you know, at least a place that you can see future generations, you know, visiting one day.
Jordan: So what’s changing then, if we’re never going to visit there, or at least not in any foreseeable timeline? What’s changing about how we see Venus right now?
Neel: Turns out, Venus may not be as inhospitable as we once thought. A lot of things changed last week when there was the announcement that we had found phosphene in the clouds of the planet. Phosphene gas is not something that is thought to be able to be produced naturally in most kinds of conditions. If it’s produced by any kind of a human activity, it’s because of sort of high industry things that we run here. But otherwise, Phosphene is a tiny little gas that is only thought to be produced by microbes that are in very poor oxygenated environments. Finding phosphene in the clouds of Venus might be a sign that there’s some life forms that have found a way to make themselves at home within the atmosphere.
Jordan: And we’ll talk about that and what it means in just a second, but can you explain how we find phosphene?
Neel: Sure. Yeah. So the study that came out last week, what essentially happened was you had different groups of scientists that were kind of thinking about Venus in certain ways. And it happened to just be the fact that scientists were specializing in studying phosphene which is, like I said, a sort of rare gas on Earth. So there was never any sort of inclination among astronomers to look for it outside side of Earth. But you know, after some discussions here and there between that team, a few astronomers thought, yeah. Hey, why don’t we point our ground based telescopes over to Venus and see if we can maybe detect it in certain traces here and there. And so the reserved time on two very high tech telescopes on Earth. One is the James Clerk Maxwell telescope based in Hawaii. And the other is the Atacama Large Millimetre Submillimetre Array in Chile. Both telescopes were able to sort of find these traces of phosphene gas in the atmosphere. It’s not something that we would have found otherwise, unless we were just specifically targeting the Venusian clouds for phosphene gas. And it just so happened that these researchers were able to reserve time on those observatories for studying Venus in this capacity.
Jordan: So did we just kind of stumble on it then? Did we find this out because a couple of researchers were really curious? Like there was no a hardcore effort here to make this discovery?
Neel: Yeah. These findings came as such a surprise to so much of the scientific world, because when it comes to looking for life on other planets, it’s thought that we should be looking for quote unquote biosignatures that are, you know, probably much more relevant to what we might find on Earth. Phosphene is not a gas that is very representative of 99% of life here on earth. So to go out of your way to target for phosphene on another planet, is just, you know, a confluence of different factors that are super rare, and we just happened to stumble on gold at this point.
Jordan: What was the reaction when that hit the scientific community?
Neel: It wasn’t amazing. It was kind of a surprise, but also if you’ve talked to so many astronomers in the space community, so many of them have been bullish on wanting to investigate Venus, because of these sort of little tidbits of data that suggests there’s something maybe there, that there are biosignatures worth probing for. This was a very, very encouraging finding. And it was not quite the shock I think it was for the rest of the public, but it certainly made waves. And it only fueled more excitement around the fact that we should go explore Venus more in depth.
Jordan: Well, how often, or how thoroughly have we studied and explored Venus in the past? Like how much work has been done?
Neel: Not very much. The biggest program for Venus exploration has been the former Soviet Union’s Venera program, which ceased to launch new missions in the mid eighties. Probably the biggest profile mission on that was Venera 13, which managed to land on the surface of Venus and I think exist for about 127 minutes before succumbing to the temperatures and pressures there. Venus, because it’s so inhospitable to study, there just hasn’t been much interest in building these, you know, multimillion dollar or even perhaps even a billion dollar, you know, mission, to then have it just succumb in a matter of hours to the Venusian atmosphere. So there hasn’t really been that much willpower among public space agencies to develop that much money towards studying Venus. That’s been one of the major issues here.
Jordan: This might be a dumb question, but if that was in the mid eighties, surely we’ve come quite far since then, in terms of the technology. Do we have stuff now we think could last for longer in that climate?
Neel: Yeah, definitely. When it comes to actually, you know, possibly studying the surface, there have been a lot of engineers that have been working on new technologies, new kinds of metals or circuitry that could last much longer than just a couple hours on the surface of Venus. None of those things unfortunately have been put into very much action. These are, you know, just sort of little proof of concept studies here and there or proposals that suggest you might be able to build materials out of this way. But there hasn’t been, again, there hasn’t been a sort of willpower to just actually build the probe or Lander itself and send it out to Venus. But that is one of sort of the exciting things about this new study, is that it raises more hopes in the possibility that we could build those sorts of things now, and that we have an actual sort of target for studying Venus in closer depth.
Jordan: Your piece in MIT Technology Review is titled We Need to Go to Venus As Soon As Possible. And that’s not just you, there’s some experts quoted in that piece as well. When you use that phrase, we need to go to Venus, what does that actually entail?
Neel: The story that I wrote was advocating for a very broad exploration program, one that we could compare to what we do for Mars. On Mars we’ve already launched several different orbiters. We’ve launched rovers, Landers, we’ve launched different kinds of missions that are digging into the underground surface. There is such a massively comprehensive program for studying Mars, and that’s sort of what I’m advocating for when it comes to Venus. We don’t want to just launch a single new orbiter or a single new probe, that’ll go through the atmosphere, or a single new Lander, or just devote a little bit more time on ground observatories on Earth to study Venus. We want to do all of the above. All of those things are essential because there’s too much to study on Venus that only one mission can investigate. It’s worth having very many different programs all at once in order to share different data, and then those missions can use the insights of other missions to more closely investigate peculiar things. Perhaps, you know, signs of life or signs of new biosignatures that are worth investigating more in depth.
Jordan: You mentioned another orbiter. Are there orbiters there right now? And what are they telling you?
Neel: So the last major orbital mission around Venus was Venus Express, which was run by the European Space Administration to study the planet’s atmosphere and surface characteristics. It was launched in 2006 and it was retired in 2014. So since then we have not had a sort of very rigorous program studying Venus, even from just the clouds. Right now there is one orbiter of note that is circling the planet right now. It’s the Japanese Space Agency’s Akizuki spacecraft. And it has sort of a weird history on its own. It was launched in 2010 and it was supposed to make the Venusian orbit by December, 2010. But unfortunately some glitches occur and it was not able to sort of make it into the planet’s orbit properly. It had to end up circling around the sun and coming back again around 2015. And it’s been studying Venus since 2015. But unfortunately that orbiter is really not equipped to studying the planet’s atmosphere or surface in depth for any kinds of biosignatures or life bearing characteristics. It’s really just around there to study the planet’s weather and a bit of its climate and tell us a bit more of some of the geophysical characteristics.
Jordan: You mentioned back at the beginning of our talk that it was very unlikely, I guess– and if I’m putting it wrong, correct me– that phosphene would be created by anything except biological forms. When we say kind of it’s unlikely or probably not, how do we make certain? And what are the chances that, you know, we just don’t understand the chemistry going on on Venus and it’s just this random thing that happened?
Neel: That’s a very good question. And that’s a question that is being hotly debated right now in the scientific community, actually. So when I mention that it’s unlikely that for phosphene to have been created by anything other than life, I mean that very strictly in terms of Earth and the terrestrial environment. There’s a lot of different kinds of different exotic chemistries that are possible off world. And Venus being one of the most stream environments in the solar system, it’s extremely possible that there may be some kind of natural geophysical processes or natural chemistry happening in the atmosphere that is creating phosphene. Now there have been some studies, especially by the authors of the new phosphene study, that have followed up and gone through more in depth into why they were able to sort of eliminate the known possibilities for how phosphene might’ve been created on Venus naturally. The study is very good, and definitely worth anyone to check out in case they’re curious to sort of learn more about like why scientists were able to sort of eliminate any of those natural processes. But one of the experts I talked to, Paul Byrne at North Carolina State, raises the simple fact that we just don’t know enough about Venus to say that, you know, there isn’t some kind of weird chemistry or your process is going on, on the surface or in the clouds that are creating phosphene. So it’s entirely possible that phosphene is just being created by some kind of natural processes and what we really need to do, which is why we need to launch a very comprehensive Venus exploration program, is study the planet more in depth in order to actually eliminate the possibility of those things.
Jordan: Would we just scoop up some of the gas and analyze it? Is that what we’re really– like is that the heart of this?
Neel: Yeah, I would say so. I think there hasn’t very much been a kind of interest in what you would call a sample return mission when it comes to Venus. But I think the new findings at this point would really bolster support for a mission that works like that. You can imagine an orbiter, you know, letting go or rejecting some kind of small probe that, you know, just sort of dips into the atmosphere, captures a little bit of the sample of the gas, and then returns to the orbiter, or, you know, makes its way directly back to Earth to bring to us to study in the lab. I think a sample return mission of Venus would be one of the most exciting space exploration missions we could conceive of in the next couple of decades.
Jordan: You say the next couple of decades? How long would it take? Like, if we had the will behind it and the money behind it, and I know there’s all sorts of political fights around that potentially, but let’s say we reached a consensus that we had to figure out if this was life or not, and we’ll start tomorrow. How soon would we find out?
Neel: That’s another big question on the minds of a lot of scientists and engineers. Launch windows to Venus, meaning when our planet and Venus are at the shortest distance, which makes it much easier for us to launch missions there. Launch windows to Venus only opened up at about every 19 months. So, you know, it takes, even if you want it to just launch tomorrow, you’re going to have to wait a bit of time before you can actually send something out there. The other issue too is these missions are so expensive. If we want to properly develop the kind of spacecraft that will withstand the rigours and pressures of the Venusian atmosphere and that environment, you need to really take time in building out these kinds of spacecraft. And you don’t want to just rush into something like that. And you want to make sure that there’s enough funding to go along those things. There are two sort of big missions that NASA is currently debating when it comes to exploring Venus. And I think these new findings would bolster the case for green-lighting either or both of those things. There was a Veritas, which is a proposed orbital mission. And there’s DaVinci Plus, which is a proposed mission to launch a little probe that would go into the Venusian atmosphere and kind of study it using the most state-of-the-art tools we can build right now. Neither of those missions, if they’re selected, would launch any earlier than 2026. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to Venus anytime soon. There are a couple of other proposals that are sort of being debated right now. One in particular is actually being built by a private company based in New Zealand called Rocket Lab. And they want to launch a small satellite called Photon towards Venus as a fly-by mission as early as 2023. And that mission might actually launch or deploy a small probe into the Venusian atmosphere to collect some data. It’s not quite clear a small probe like that would be able to carry any sort of instruments that could be really, you know, investigate the phosphene question or any other biosignatures in the atmosphere, but it’s possible it could find something that lends more hope to the idea that there’s life on Venus. So it’s, you know, certainly nothing to just sort of scoff at.
Jordan: And not to be ridiculous here, because again, I’m not certain of anything when we have these discussions, but if we just found out about phosphene and we’ve never really been able to study Venus comprehensively, what are the chances that if that is a sign of life, that it’s not the only sign of life and that there are all sorts of things going on there that we don’t understand?
Neel: Absolutely. If phosphene is a sign of life on Venus, it’s entirely possible it is simply only one form of life. Like I said before, phosphene is produced on earth by organisms that are living in environments that are very poor in oxygen. This would make sense for Venus obviously because the atmosphere is just so densely composing carbon dioxide. But that doesn’t mean that, you know, perhaps in other pockets of the environment, perhaps on the surface or perhaps, you know, in other altitudes of the atmosphere, there are other forms of life that are producing other kinds of biosignatures that reveal they are of a different species, or of very different family of organisms. In the instance that we find an organism on Venus that is producing that phosphene, that does not mean it’s the only life form on the planet.
Jordan: If I had to ask for your gut feeling, first of all, is there life on Venus? And second of all, is there varied life there?
Neel: So my answer to that, you should first know I’m a little bit of a cynic when it comes to thinking about the astrobiological possibilities of the universe. Right now we don’t know enough about phosphene on Venus to, you know, outright suggest it’s a product of life on the planet. And I would say it’s probably more likely that phosphene is just being produced by some kind of exotic chemistry on Venus. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible that there’s life on Venus at all in other kinds of forms. The planet is just, it has such a vibrant chemistry in such a weird, exotic, extreme composition on the surface and in the atmosphere that there might be life there that exists in other ways we haven’t really conceived of here on Earth, and you know, that’s surviving right now in the Venusian clouds or on the Venusian surface. My gut feeling is that life on Venus is probably very, very rare. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. But I don’t think that detours us from thinking about a larger Venus exploration program anyways. We just don’t know enough about the planet and I think there’s other reasons that we would want to explore Venus as well. One of the things that you’ll hear from a lot of scientists is that Venus started out so similarly to earth, both of the planets are similar sizes, similar distances from the sun, it’s long fight that Venus and the Earth were pretty similar at some point billions and billions of years ago. And there’s a strong question as to what happened that caused me to turn to such a Hellish landscape and allowed Earth to blossom into this, you know, place that is home to countless kinds of a species and organisms.
Jordan: Maybe we’re about to find out exactly what it was.
Neel: Right. There’s a huge mystery as to what happened. And I think that in itself is already a good enough reason for us to want to go investigate Venus and explore the planet more in depth with a very robust exploration program.
Jordan: It would be really something if after kind of scouring as far out as we could get for signs of life that we found something like next door.
Neel: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think while Mars is such an exciting place for so many reasons, Venus is also right there, and it’s way waiting for us to explore it as well. And you know, if it turns out that the phosphene signatures are a sign of life, it means that we should at once go as soon as possible to investigate those organisms and find out how they got there, how they were able to survive Venus’s sort of strange and extreme evolution, and what else might be lurking down on the surface.
Jordan: Neel, thank you for indulging us with this today. It’s fascinating.
Neel: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Jordan: Neel Patel of MIT Technology Review. That was The Big Story. For more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find all our episodes there. I promise next week we’ll be back to covering the pandemic and politics and every other thing that makes us want to leave Earth right now. You can talk to us at @thebigstoryFPN on Twitter, you can find us always in your podcast player, Apple, or Google or Stitcher or Spotify, or you choose. I don’t care. Just listen and subscribe, rate and review. Tell your friends. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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