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MIT researchers detail plans for private missions to search for life on Venus

A suite of new privately-funded missions will be heading to Venus to search our neighboring planet for signs of life. In a recently released report, researchers from MIT have detailed more about their plans for the Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions.

Caption: A false-color image of the sulfurous Venusian cloud cover was produced using two ultraviolet channels from Akatsuki, the Japanese PLANET-C, and Venus Climate Orbiter, which highlights the convective turbulence of the planet's tropical regions, in contrast with the clear, smoother polar regions.
A false-color image of the sulfurous Venusian cloud cover. Daimia Bouic/JAXA/ISAS/DARTS

Although Venus is in many ways highly inhospitable, with its high surface temperatures and crushingly thick atmosphere, people have long speculated that there could be microbial life in its clouds. The potential finding of the biomarker phosphine there last year drew considerable public interest, although subsequent research shows that the phosphine finding was likely incorrect. Even so, the VLF researchers argue in the report that, “Venus is a compelling planet to search for signs of life because of the habitable temperatures in the cloud layers and because of many atmospheric chemical anomalies that together are suggestive of unknown chemistry and possibly the presence of life.”

In order to learn more about Venus, the VLF proposes a suite of missions which will be privately funded. The idea is to send a series of low-cost missions with specific scientific goals, to complement bigger missions like NASA’s DAVINCI+ and VERITAS and the European Space Agency’s ENVISION.

“We hope this is the start of a new paradigm where you go cheaply, more often, and in a more focused way,” said Sara Seager, principal investigator for the planned Venus Life Finder Missions, in a statement. She was also a member of the team that made the disputed phosphine detection. “This is a newer, nimbler, faster way to do space science.”

The VLF mission will begin with a probe from Rocket Lab to be launched in 2023. The probe will skim for three minutes through the Venusian atmosphere, aiming to collect data about the chemistry there.

“There are these lingering mysteries on Venus that we can’t really solve unless we go back there directly,” said Seager. “Lingering chemical anomalies that leave room for the possibility of life.”

“People have been talking about missions to Venus for a long time,” she went on to say. “But we’ve come up with a new suite of focused, miniaturized instruments to get the particular job done.”

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