While some experts think alien life may resemble robots, others think it will look more like a dark streak in a cloud. Seriously?
It's a possibility we can't overlook.
Sanjay Limaye, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview in Astrobiology magazine that he believes that the mysterious dark streaks in the clouds over Venus, long observed but never explained, could be signs of life or even life forms themselves. He wants the proposed joint U.S.-Russian Venera-D Venus mission – scheduled for 2025 – to include an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would sample the dark streaks for evidence of microbial life. Limaye is a member of the Venera-D science definition team so he’s in a position to influence the decision.
The current proposed purpose of the mission is to study why Venus’ atmosphere rotates so unusually fast over its surface. This will inherently include studying the dark streaks because they don’t mix together with the super-rotating atmosphere and they strangely absorb ultraviolet light. While the mission’s balloons will test the streaks for UV absorbers like iron chloride, Limaye is pitching his microbe idea.
I cannot say that there is microbial life in Venus' clouds. But that doesn't mean it's not there either. The only way to learn is to go there and sample the atmosphere.
At between 50 and 62 km (31-38 miles) above the surface of Venus is a layer where temperatures range between 30ºC and 70ºC (86ºF to 158ºF) and the pressure is similar to the surface of the Earth. That’s where Limaye wants to look for elongated particles discovered by Russia’s previous Venera missions that are mysteriously immune to the sulfuric acid in the Venusian atmosphere. He thinks the particles could be microbes covered in sulphur molecules called S8 molucules that are acid-resistant. However, to explore that layer requires a big solar-powered UAV that could move up and down between layers, not the proposed balloons.
The idea is that with a large enough wing span you can generate enough power and actually fly through the atmosphere of Venus, with electric propellers, for a very long time.
Northrop Grumman has a concept Venusian UAV called a VAMP (Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform), with a 55-meter wing-span and capabilities to stay aloft and functioning for at least a year. It sounds perfect for the mission.
Roscosmos and NASA are committed to deciding on the goals of the mission by the end of January 2017. Will they agree to listen to Sanjay Limaye and look for life in the dark streaks of Venus? We’ll find out soon.