Space Sunday: phosphine on Venus, test flights and Jupiter

Venus: home of a possible biomarker

Venus, the second planet out from the Sun and roughly the same size of Earth, is well known for being the prime example of a runaway greenhouse effect. Shrouded in dense, toxic clouds that hide its barren surface from view, the planet has an average surface temperature 464°C, its dense, carbon-dioxide dominant (96%) atmosphere places an average pressure on that surface around 92 times the mean pressure at sea level here on Earth – or roughly the same pressure as exerted by the sea at a depth of 900 metres (3,000 ft).

Yet, as I’ve recently reported (see: Space Sunday: Venus’ transformation, SLS and an asteroid), there is evidence to suggest that Venus started life as a warm, wet planet with liquid water seas of its own, only to be started on the road to becoming the hothouse we know today thanks to Jupiter’s wandering influence.

However, if this theory is correct, and Venus was once warm and wet, the question of whether it was sufficiently so to give rise to the earliest forms of basic life becomes a very real one – as does what might have happened to that life as the planet started its long transformation in the superheated, super pressurised world we see today.

A recent study suggests Venus was original a comfortably warm planet with plenty of liquid water – an environment ideal for life to arise. See:  Space Sunday: Venus’ transformation, SLS and an asteroid

Did the changing conditions simply wipe out any microbes that may have arisen there, or did those microbes themselves have been transformed, moving to the upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere where they could survive on the heat from both the Sun and rising from through the planet’s atmosphere without necessarily being dry roasted, while drawing on the minerals and chemicals also floating within the high-altitude clouds?

The idea of entirely atmosphere-borne forms of life on planets like Venus and Jupiter is not new, but this past week, the potential for some form of organic activity on Venus became a lot more real with the detection of a compound this is usually the off-shoot of organic processes within the mid-levels of the Venusian cloud layers.

Phosphine is a colourless, flammable, very toxic gas compound made up of one phosphorus and three hydrogen atoms (PH₃).  It is most commonly produced by organic life forms, although it can be created artificially. Thus its presence within the atmosphere of Venus raises the tantalizing possibility that something is alive in that atmosphere.

The detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere was made by an international team using two different telescopes in different parts of the world. The team, led by astronomers working out of Cardiff University in the UK, first identified the compound using the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JMCT), located in Hawaii. They then turned to the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, equipped with more sensitive detectors than JCMT, to confirm their findings.

The James Clark Maxwell telescope, Hawaii. Credit: Will Montgomerie/EAO/JCMT

It’s important to note that while the phosphine has been identified, the team responsible for identifying it are not jumping to the conclusion it means there is life within the Venusian atmosphere. While – in our experience – it is generally the result of organic interactions, it can be produced in the laboratory, as noted, through chemical interactions – and Venus is a veritable chemical hothouse.

What is surprising is the amount of phosphine calculated to be in the cloud layer: roughly 20 parts per billion. While a comparatively tiny amount, it is astonishing to planetary astronomers because it’s long been assumed that if any phosphorus existed in Venus’ atmosphere, it would long ago have bonded with oxygen atoms, of which there are a lot around Venus, albeit the majority being bound within the dominant carbon dioxide.

Following their discovery the team, led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University and ideo Sagawa at Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan, sought potentially natural means for the formation of phosphine around Venus.  These included things such as chemical reactions in the atmosphere driven by strong sunlight or lightning, or the interaction of chemicals coming from volcanic activity, or delivered by meteorites. However, none of these mechanisms could account for the volume of phosphine Venus appears to have.

Even so, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the phosphine is the result of tiny Venuisan organisms; as the team note, it could be the result of as yet unknown photochemistry or geochemistry mechanisms within the planet’s atmosphere or the planet itself.

Although we concluded that known chemical processes cannot produce enough phosphine, there remains the possibility that some hitherto unknown abiotic process exists on Venus. We have a lot of homework to do before reaching an exotic conclusion, including re-observation of Venus to verify the present result itself.

– Study member ideo Sagawa

Obviously, to determine whether or not biotic or abiotic processes are responsible for the phosphine, further study – preferably close-up – of Venus’ atmosphere is required. Although further Earth-based observations from Earth can help confirm the volume of phosphine within the planet’s atmosphere, satellites orbiting Venus will offer a far more complete picture, simply because they can study the planet in detail over the course of years, building up a complete picture of its composition using spectrographic analysis.

Two Venus missions – VERITAS, the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy orbit and DAVINCI+, an atmospheric penetrator, are already being considered by NASA as planetary missions among missions to other destinations, with one of this group of proposals due to be selected in April 2021. Either could help sniff out the phosphine and potentially help identify its cause. Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter may also help in further studies of phosphine around Venus.

The private company Rocket Lab has been developing plans to mount its own mission to Venus for some time, using their Electron rocket, which has been operating since 2018, and their new Photon upper stage, which made its début in august 2020. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck believes that Venus has been undervalued as a place for stud (although there have been some 30 fly, orbital and lander missions since 1962).

Planned for 2023, the Rocket Labs mission plans to “drop” a probe into Venus’ atmosphere at such an angle it would spend the maximum amount of time possible within that calm region where the phosphine has been detected. The probe would be small, with just a mass of 37 kg, of which around 3 kg would be available to a science payload.

Even better would be to have floating platforms operating within the calmer layer of Venus’ atmosphere. It’s long been known that as violent and stormy as that atmosphere is, there is a region where things are a lot calmer, sitting between 48 and 60 km above the planet. This region is not so lethal as other regions in the atmosphere, and where temperatures range from -1ºC to 93ºC.

In 2015, engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Centre put forward HAVOC (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept), a proposal to have a crewed platform operating in the “calm” region of Venus’ atmosphere (48-60 km above the surface of the planet) could be used to explore the atmosphere via special airships, Such a concept, on a smaller and automated scale, might conceivably used in the future to seek out phosphine, and if it is found to be biotic in origin, used to study the microbes responsible for it. Credit: NASA Langley

There have been proposals – such as NASA Langley’s HAVOC – to base platforms with this altitude range from which surveys of the Venusian atmosphere could be carried out; ideas which, if re-modelled, could have relevance for the search for phosphine and its causes – particularly as the phosphine has been detected within those altitudes.

The University at Buffalo, New York has also proposed an ambitious mission to utilise this region of Venus’ atmosphere. Called BREEZE (Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Explorations), it’s essentially a lightweight flexible (“morphing”) aerodynamic body inspired by Earth’s stingray and manta ray. Within the atmosphere, it would use the “morphing” of the wing to both maintain altitude and propel itself through the atmosphere, circumnavigating the planet every 4-6 terrestrial days. This would allow it to study weather patterns and volcanic activity – and gathering and analysing atmospheric samples, which may further help identify the volume of phosphine present and possible help identify its origins.

The BREEZE concept uses manta ray-like aerodynamic bodies to circumnavigate Venus and examine its atmosphere. Credit: University at Buffalo, New York

BREEZE is currently just a conceptual study being financed by NASA, the work having started in 2019, but the detection of the phosphine may increase the potential for the mission to move from concept to reality.

SpaceX and Virgin Galactic Look to October to Historic Flights

October could see two highly anticipated flights of space vehicles take place.

Virgin Galactic has announced it plans to carry out the next sub-orbital flight of its space plane VSS Unity towards the end of October. It will be the third such test flight for the vehicle (the others being December 2018 and February 2019), but the first to take place from the company’s base of operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Film of VSS Unity’s first sub-orbital flight, December 2018

Most significantly, if the flight performs as expected, it will be the last flight of the vehicle with just two pilots: the follow-on flight, which could take place before the end of 2020, will see VSS Unity undertake a sub-orbital flight with a crew of four aboard – two pilots and two “mission specialists”.

If that flight is successful, the company has indicated it will pave the way for a flight with Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson aboard, which will likely be the final test flight prior to commencing commercial flights carrying fare-paying passengers on sub-orbital hops. Branson’s flight is currently scheduled for the first quarter of 2021.

Meanwhile, SpaceX – via tweets from CEO Elon Musk – has indicated that early / mid August could see the first flight of a Starship vehicle to high altitude from the company’s test facilities at Boca Chica Texas.

The flight will utilise Starship prototype SN8, the first complete Starship to fly with nose sections and aerodynamic flight surfaces. According to Musk, assembly of the vehicle should be completed in the coming week. after this, the craft will be moved to a launch stand where it will undergo cryogenic pressurisation tests and a static fire test of of the vehicle’s three Raptor motors.

In an official request to the FAA for clearance for a test flight, SpaceX indicate that the flight will target an altitude of 18,288 metres (60,000 ft), rather than the previously-stated 20 km. Whether this is a slight reduction of the target altitude, or just a rounding down to the nearest tens of thousands of feet isn’t clear. As the first flight of a full Starship stack, this flight will have a high risk of failure due to the number of unknowns – but if successful, could be spectacular.

Animation of the SN8 flight by C-bass productions

What this means for prototypes SN5 and SN6, which have both completed 150m hops, isn’t clear. However, the company is turning out upper hull, noses cone and flight surfaces at a rate of knots. Most appeared destined for prototypes SN9 through SN11, but it might be the company opt to uprate SN5 and SN6 –  or they might opt to scrap them.

Astronomy Picture of the Week

Captured on August 25th, 2020, this image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals Jupiter in stunning detail, showing the planet’s banded atmosphere, caused by Jupiter’s rapid rotational spin, and the swirling eye of the Great Red Spot (which is slowly shrinking in size, and is currently rough 2.5 Earth diameters across). Off to the top left of Jupiter, icy Europa can be seen. Also caught within the planet’s atmosphere towards the top left, is a white plume of a storm that erupted up through the atmosphere on August 18th, 2020 to orbit the planet at a speed of 560 km/h. Two further storm eruptions where subsequently observed at the same latitude, their cause unknown. Credit: NASA