- In mid-September, astronomers announced that they had discovered a sign of potential microbial life on Venus: the presence of phosphine gas.
- The discovery needs further research. Fortunately, a spaceship must fly from Venus on Wednesday night.
- The BepiColumbo spacecraft will swing past the planet on its way to Mercury.
- One of its instruments may be able to confirm phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, but the chances are slim, as the instrument may not be sensitive enough to detect low levels of phosphine.
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When Jorn Helbert learned that a team of astronomers had discovered Venus̵
Naturally occurring phosphine on Earth is produced only by bacteria. Therefore, the presence of phosphine gas on Venus may mean that the planet is hosting extraterrestrial life.
But Helbert, himself a planetary explorer at the German Aerospace Center, was particularly pleased with the timing of the discovery. It so happened that the spacecraft he was using for research, BepiColumbo, was on its way to Venus at that very moment. Moreover, there was an instrument on board that could potentially detect phosphine in the atmosphere of the overheated planet.
“It’s fantastic,” Helbert told Business Insider about the weather. “To be able to take [this] data make me very happy. ”
At the time of the publication of the study of nature in mid-September, BepiColumbo was a little over a month outside of Venus. Now his approach is approaching. It is scheduled to fly from the planet late at night on Wednesday, October 14, reaching the nearest point at 23:58 ET.
At its nearest point, BepiColumbo will be about 6,200 miles (10,000 km) from Venus, which may be too far away to get a good read. The infrared instrument that Helbert has on board, called MERTIS for short, is more suitable for Mercury, its ultimate goal.
After conducting some tests with his team, Helbert said they found that MERTIS could potentially measure phosphine on the planet if there was a lot of it. Nature’s article estimates that Venus’s atmosphere contains only about 20 parts per billion of phosphine, which the MERTIS instrument cannot detect.
“Based on the calculations we have made so far, if phosphine is only at the level reported in [Nature] “We probably won’t be able to find him,” Helbert told Business Insider in an email. If there is significantly more, we will be able to see it. “Phosphine levels must be somewhere in the multi-million units,” he said.
Detection of phosphine on Venus
The MERTIS instrument, which measures the heat energy emitted by objects, is built to study the composition of Mercury’s surface. Different elements issue different thermal signatures, which MERTIS uses to create images, which are then studied by researchers.
“Basically, what we’re looking at is the heat coming out of the planet,” Helbert said. “That’s why it’s fantastic for Mercury, because it’s a very hot planet with a strong thermal signature.”
Venus is also hot, but MERTIS is designed to detect minerals on the planet’s surface, not gases in its atmosphere, like Venus’s phosphine. And to make detailed infrared images of the atmosphere, a higher-resolution instrument will be needed, Helbert said.
“For the MERTIS surface instrument, it has a high resolution,” Helbert explained. “There is a low resolution for the atmosphere.”
Mission to Mercury
BepiColumbo launched in October 2018. It carries two satellites: one from the European Space Agency and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. His mission calls on these satellites to explore Mercury from different angles.
BepiColumbo is scheduled to enter Mercury’s orbit in December 2025. Before that, however, it must slow down enough to be captured by the planet’s gravity. So it flies from Mercury six times – and before that, from Venus twice – to use the gravitational forces of the planets to limit its speed.
Even if Helbert’s team fails to find phosphine this week, it will soon have another chance: in August 2021, the spacecraft will fly back from Venus. At that time, the scientists behind the mission had to prepare for almost a year and will learn from the first flight. In addition, BepiColumbo will come much closer to Venus next time – only about 550 miles (550 miles) away.
To find phosphine on the first flight, the team will have to get “very, very lucky,” Helbert told Forbes earlier. “On the second we just have to be very lucky.”