Last month, researchers reported that Earth’s neighbouring planet Venus exhibited possible signs of life after astronomers discovered phosphine gas in its atmosphere. However, now we might have a chance to confirm the theory as a robot spacecraft will fly past the planet and study the exploration of the solar system.
Jörn Helbert of the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, who works on a BepiColombo instrument called the Mercury Radiometer and Thermal Infrared Spectrometer, was excited after the news of phosphine gas in Venus broke last month. It just so happens that the BepiColombo space probe’s flyby above Venus at two minutes before midnight ET on Wednesday comes at a time when he and his team can verify and collect data.
The BepiColombo spacecraft also has an instrument on board that could potentially detect the presence of phosphine.
The project was planned many years ago before the recent discovery was made but it has now become the first spacecraft to get near Venus and measure gases in the planet’s atmosphere. However, since the discovery came a bit late, BepiColombo will only be able to get within 6,700 miles of the surface of Venus. Speaking to NBC, Helbert says the distance might be too far to detect phosphine at the reported concentrations of 20 parts-per-billion.
Helbert’s team will analyse the data, and look for everything, expected and unexpected. The data might also include phosphine, sulphur dioxide, which would be a sign of ongoing volcanism pointed out by last month’s research.
The research published in Nature Astronomy said that Venus has cloud decks that are temperate but hyper acidic. The astronomers pointed out an apparent presence of phosphine gas in Venus’s atmosphere, where any phosphorus should be in oxidized forms.
What intrigued the scientists was the origin of the phosphine gas since none of the potential sources they investigated could explain the amount of gas found in the atmosphere. The gas also indicates the presence of life on the planet. Phosphine is produced either by people in labs or by anaerobic bacteria on earth. Hence, the gas found in Venus’s atmosphere might indicate some sort of aerial life form in the clouds of the planet, which is otherwise an inhospitable place.