Special Issue "The Search for Signs of Life on Venus: Science Objectives and Mission Designs"

A special issue of Aerospace (ISSN 2226-4310). This special issue belongs to the section "Astronautics & Space Science".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (31 August 2022) | Viewed by 10484

Special Issue Editors

Prof. Dr. Sara Seager
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
Interests: astrophysics observation; space instrumentation; space missions
Dr. Janusz J. Petkowski
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
Interests: astrobiology; exoplanets

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Renewed interest in the long-standing possibility of life in the clouds of Venus has inspired us to study mission concepts to Venus via in situ probes. Remarkably, it has been nearly 40 years since the last in situ measurements. Russian Vega balloons and landers flew in 1985, and the US Pioneer Venus probes flew in 1978. The entire scientific field of astrobiology has sprung up in the interim. We now know how to ask questions we could not have formulated in the 1980s and have available advanced and miniaturized scientific instruments to answer these new questions. Although NASA and ESA will both be sending missions to Venus at the end of the 2020s, these missions do not study cloud particles in situ, yet are highly complementary to the astrobiologically focused efforts presented in this Special Issue. This Special Issue plans to give an overview on the astrobiological potential of Venus and provides selected contributions on mission concepts to study Venus clouds sponsored under the Venus Life Finder (VLF) Mission Study by MIT and Breakthrough Initiatives. The Special Issue also includes instrument descriptions and an overview of biological laboratory experiments aiming to guide the design of future astrobiological missions to Venus.

Potential topics include but are not limited to mission architecture, design, and operations for in situ and atmospheric sample return; flight systems description; aerial platform design and operations; science instruments payload and design; astrobiological potential of Venus clouds and mission science objectives; laboratory experiments in support of astrobiological exploration of Venus.

Prof. Dr. Sara Seager
Dr. Janusz J. Petkowski
Guest Editors

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Keywords

  • venus
  • planetary science
  • astrobiology
  • space missions
  • space instrumentation

Published Papers (9 papers)

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Research

Article
LOVE-Bug Deployment Demonstrator
Aerospace 2022, 9(10), 573; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9100573 (registering DOI) - 01 Oct 2022
Viewed by 126
Abstract
Life on Venus Expedition (LOVE) Bugs are a proposed family of miniature, featherlight probes for exploring and sensing the Venusian atmosphere. The Bugs carry tiny ThumbSat femtosatellite buses and instruments beneath balloons or flexible parawings. They are designed to descend from 68 to [...] Read more.
Life on Venus Expedition (LOVE) Bugs are a proposed family of miniature, featherlight probes for exploring and sensing the Venusian atmosphere. The Bugs carry tiny ThumbSat femtosatellite buses and instruments beneath balloons or flexible parawings. They are designed to descend from 68 to 45 km altitude over several hours because this part of the atmosphere appears to be most welcoming to life as we know it, according to the Venus Life Finder Mission Study. The parawing option is the subject of this work. In order to fit in with larger probe missions, the LOVE-Bug concept is opportunistic. One anticipated opportunity is to be ejected when a “mother probe” needs to deploy a drogue chute for stabilisation through the transonic regime. This work developed an analogy for such a dramatic Venusian ejection by dropping from a high-altitude balloon in Earth’s stratosphere. By packaging the payload in a small-diameter low-drag capsule and dropping from 28 km, the vehicle accelerates to supersonic velocity at around 18 km, where the wing is ejected and deployed. A variant of the NASA ParaWing was created by incorporating a drag tail to help to stabilise the wing at extremely high and low velocities. Design, simulation, building, and testing work was carried out, and two flights were flown. The second flight demonstrated successful deployment of the wing in representative Venusian entry conditions. Both flights demonstrated that the ThumbSat performed as required in “space”-type conditions. Recommendations for future work, to qualify the LOVE-Bugs for operation on Venus, are presented. Full article
Article
Sensor for Determining Single Droplet Acidities in the Venusian Atmosphere
Aerospace 2022, 9(10), 560; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9100560 - 28 Sep 2022
Viewed by 284
Abstract
The cloud layers of Venus are known to have pressures and temperatures comparable to those on Earth, but, at the same time, many details about the environment inside them are unknown. The early consensus was that Venusian clouds are composed of droplets of [...] Read more.
The cloud layers of Venus are known to have pressures and temperatures comparable to those on Earth, but, at the same time, many details about the environment inside them are unknown. The early consensus was that Venusian clouds are composed of droplets of near concentrated sulfuric acid with very limited water availability; newer models, however, suggest a pH range between −1 and 1, and these imply some form of a neutralizing agent and potentially complex chemical cycles. It is also possible that different populations of cloud particles have different acidities. To answer these questions, we propose an in situ acidity sensor that can statistically determine the acidities of individual cloud droplets from concentrated sulfuric acid (18 M) to deionized water, based on the fluorescence of a pigment that is immobilized in a film and read out using a set of excited LEDs and a camera. Here, we present the preliminary research and prototyping results and suggest a possible design for this sensor. Full article
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Article
Deducing the Composition of Venus Cloud Particles with the Autofluorescence Nephelometer (AFN)
Aerospace 2022, 9(9), 492; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9090492 - 02 Sep 2022
Viewed by 649
Abstract
The composition, sizes and shapes of particles in the clouds of Venus have previously been studied with a variety of in situ and remote sensor measurements. A number of major questions remain unresolved, however, motivating the development of an exploratory mission that will [...] Read more.
The composition, sizes and shapes of particles in the clouds of Venus have previously been studied with a variety of in situ and remote sensor measurements. A number of major questions remain unresolved, however, motivating the development of an exploratory mission that will drop a small probe, instrumented with a single-particle autofluorescence nephelometer (AFN), into Venus’s atmosphere. The AFN is specifically designed to address uncertainties associated with the asphericity and complex refractive indices of cloud particles. The AFN projects a collimated, focused, linearly polarized, 440 nm wavelength laser beam through a window of the capsule into the airstream and measures the polarized components of some of the light that is scattered by individual particles that pass through the laser beam. The AFN also measures fluorescence from those particles that contain material that fluoresce when excited at a wavelength of 440 nm and emit at 470–520 nm. Fluorescence is expected from some organic molecules if present in the particles. AFN measurements during probe passage through the Venus clouds are intended to provide constraints on particle number concentration, size, shape, and composition. Hypothesized organics, if present in Venus aerosols, may be detected by the AFN as a precursor to precise identification via future missions. The AFN has been chosen as the primary science instrument for the upcoming Rocket Lab mission to Venus, to search for organic molecules in the cloud particles and constrain the particle composition. Full article
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Article
Leading-Edge Vortex Lift (LEVL) Sample Probe for Venusian Atmosphere
Aerospace 2022, 9(9), 471; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9090471 - 23 Aug 2022
Viewed by 416
Abstract
Can a small, lightweight, free-falling sample probe be slowed enough in the Venusian atmosphere to run a 10 min microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) ion gas micro spectrometer, without adding a propulsion systems or explosives and parachutes to the probe mass? To meet this requirement [...] Read more.
Can a small, lightweight, free-falling sample probe be slowed enough in the Venusian atmosphere to run a 10 min microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) ion gas micro spectrometer, without adding a propulsion systems or explosives and parachutes to the probe mass? To meet this requirement a leading-edge vortex lift (LEVL) autorotating probe design (i.e., maple or sycamore seed shape) has been proposed and evaluated. It has been found that a probe with a total mass of less than 1 kg would allow prolonged flight longer than 15 min. Mathematical modelling and physical scale model testing has been performed to show that this flight time is achievable, allowing MEMS ion gas micro-spectrometer sampling of the Venusian atmosphere. Full article
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Article
Rocket Lab Mission to Venus
Aerospace 2022, 9(8), 445; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9080445 - 13 Aug 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 2107
Abstract
Regular, low-cost Decadal-class science missions to planetary destinations will be enabled by high-ΔV small spacecraft, such as the high-energy Photon, and small launch vehicles, such as Electron, to support expanding opportunities for scientists and to increase the rate of science return. The Rocket [...] Read more.
Regular, low-cost Decadal-class science missions to planetary destinations will be enabled by high-ΔV small spacecraft, such as the high-energy Photon, and small launch vehicles, such as Electron, to support expanding opportunities for scientists and to increase the rate of science return. The Rocket Lab mission to Venus is a small direct entry probe planned for baseline launch in May 2023 with accommodation for a single ~1 kg instrument. A backup launch window is available in January 2025. The probe mission will spend about 5 min in the Venus cloud layers at 48–60 km altitude above the surface and collect in situ measurements. We have chosen a low-mass, low-cost autofluorescing nephelometer to search for organic molecules in the cloud particles and constrain the particle composition. Full article
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Communication
Venus Life Finder Missions Motivation and Summary
Aerospace 2022, 9(7), 385; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9070385 - 18 Jul 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 754
Abstract
Finding evidence of extraterrestrial life would be one of the most profound scientific discoveries ever made, advancing humanity into a new epoch of cosmic awareness. The Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions feature a series of three direct atmospheric probes designed to assess the [...] Read more.
Finding evidence of extraterrestrial life would be one of the most profound scientific discoveries ever made, advancing humanity into a new epoch of cosmic awareness. The Venus Life Finder (VLF) missions feature a series of three direct atmospheric probes designed to assess the habitability of the Venusian clouds and search for signs of life and life itself. The VLF missions are an astrobiology-focused set of missions, and the first two out of three can be launched quickly and at a relatively low cost. The mission concepts come out of an 18-month study by an MIT-led worldwide consortium. Full article
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Article
Aerial Platform Design Options for a Life-Finding Mission at Venus
Aerospace 2022, 9(7), 363; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9070363 - 07 Jul 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 429
Abstract
Mounting evidence of chemical disequilibria in the Venusian atmosphere has heightened interest in the search for life within the planet’s cloud decks. Balloon systems are currently considered to be the superior class of aerial platform for extended atmospheric sampling within the clouds, providing [...] Read more.
Mounting evidence of chemical disequilibria in the Venusian atmosphere has heightened interest in the search for life within the planet’s cloud decks. Balloon systems are currently considered to be the superior class of aerial platform for extended atmospheric sampling within the clouds, providing the highest ratio of science return to risk. Balloon-based aerial platform designs depend heavily on payload mass and target altitudes. We present options for constant- and variable-altitude balloon systems designed to carry out science operations inside the Venusian cloud decks. The Venus Life Finder (VLF) mission study proposes a series of missions that require extended in situ analysis of Venus cloud material. We provide an overview of a representative mission architecture, as well as gondola designs to accommodate a VLF instrument suite. Current architecture asserts a launch date of 30 July 2026, which would place an orbiter and entry vehicle at Venus as early as November 29 of that same year. Full article
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Article
Mission Architecture to Characterize Habitability of Venus Cloud Layers via an Aerial Platform
Aerospace 2022, 9(7), 359; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9070359 - 06 Jul 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 1058
Abstract
Venus is known for its extreme surface temperature and its sulfuric acid clouds. But the cloud layers on Venus have similar temperature and pressure conditions to those on the surface of Earth and are conjectured to be a possible habitat for microscopic life [...] Read more.
Venus is known for its extreme surface temperature and its sulfuric acid clouds. But the cloud layers on Venus have similar temperature and pressure conditions to those on the surface of Earth and are conjectured to be a possible habitat for microscopic life forms. We propose a mission concept to explore the clouds of Venus for up to 30 days to evaluate habitability and search for signs of life. The baseline mission targets a 2026 launch opportunity. A super-pressure variable float altitude balloon aerobot cycles between the altitudes of 48 and 60 km, i.e., primarily traversing the lower, middle, and part of the upper cloud layers. The instrument suite is carried by a gondola design derived from the Pioneer Venus Large Probe pressure vessel. The aerobot transmits data via an orbiter relay combined with a direct-to-Earth link. The orbiter is captured into a 6-h retrograde orbit with a low, roughly 170-degree, inclination. The total mass of the orbiter and entry probe is estimated to be 640 kg. An alternate concept for a constant float altitude balloon is also discussed as a lower complexity option compared to the variable float altitude version. The proposed mission would complement other planned missions and could help elucidate the limits of habitability and the role of unknown chemistry or possibly life itself in the Venus atmosphere. Full article
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Article
The ORIGIN Space Instrument for Detecting Biosignatures and Habitability Indicators on a Venus Life Finder Mission
Aerospace 2022, 9(6), 312; https://doi.org/10.3390/aerospace9060312 - 09 Jun 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 781
Abstract
Recent and past observations of chemical and physical peculiarities in the atmosphere of Venus have renewed speculations about the existence of life in its clouds. To find signs of Venusian life, a dedicated astrobiological space exploration mission is required, and for this reason [...] Read more.
Recent and past observations of chemical and physical peculiarities in the atmosphere of Venus have renewed speculations about the existence of life in its clouds. To find signs of Venusian life, a dedicated astrobiological space exploration mission is required, and for this reason the Venus Life Finder mission is currently being prepared. A Venus Life Finder mission will require dedicated and specialized instruments to hunt for biosignatures and habitability indicators. In this contribution, we present the ORIGIN space instrument, a laser desorption/laser ablation ionization mass spectrometer. This instrument is designed to detect large, non-volatile molecules, specifically biomolecules such as amino acids and lipids. At the same time, it can also be used in ablation mode for elemental composition analysis. Recent studies with this space prototype instrument of amino acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, lipids, salts, metals, sulphur isotopes, and microbial elemental composition are discussed in the context of studies of biosignatures and habitability indicators in Venus’s atmosphere. The implementation of the ORIGIN instrument into a Venus Life Finder mission is discussed, emphasizing the low weight and low power consumption of the instrument. An instrument design and sample handling system are presented that make optimal use of the capabilities of this instrument. ORIGIN is a highly versatile instrument with proven capabilities to investigate and potentially resolve many of the outstanding questions about the atmosphere of Venus and the presence of life in its clouds. Full article
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