Volcanoes Were Erupting on Venus in the 1990s

3D model of Venus

Start talking about Venus and immediately my mind goes to those images from the Venera space probes that visited Venus in the 1970’s. They revealed a world that had been scarred by millennia of volcanic activity yet as far as we could tell those volcanoes were dormant. That is, until just now.  Magellan has been mapping the surface of Venus and between 1990 and 1992 had mapped 98% of the surface. Researchers compared two scans of the same area and discovered that there were fresh outflows of molten rock filling a vent crater! There was active volcanism on Venus. 

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Could Life Exist in Water Droplet Worlds in Venus’ Atmosphere?

Could life exist within Venus' voluminous clouds? New research says yes. Image Credit: Abreu et al. 2024.

It’s a measure of human ingenuity and curiosity that scientists debate the possibility of life on Venus. They established long ago that Venus’ surface is absolutely hostile to life. But didn’t scientists find a biomarker in the planet’s clouds? Could life exist there, never touching the planet’s sweltering surface?

It seems to depend on who you ask.

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Planetary Atmospheres: Why study them? What can they teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Image of the faint, nitrogen atmosphere of the dwarf planet, Pluto, obtained by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Universe Today has surveyed the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, and comets, and what these fantastic scientific fields can teach researchers and space fans regarding the search for life beyond Earth. Here, we will discuss how planetary atmospheres play a key role in better understanding our solar system and beyond, including why researchers study planetary atmospheres, the benefits and challenges, what planetary atmospheres can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying planetary atmospheres. So, why is it so important to study planetary atmospheres?

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Venus’ Clouds Contain Sulfuric Acid. That’s Not a Problem for Life.

Photo of Venus (Credit: Akatsuki)

A recent study published in Astrobiology investigates the potential habitability in the clouds of Venus, specifically how amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, could survive in the sulfuric acid-rich upper atmosphere of Venus. This comes as the potential for life in Venus’ clouds has become a focal point of contention within the astrobiology community in the last few years. On Earth, concentrated sulfuric acid is known for its corrosivity towards metals and rocks and for absorbing water vapor. In Venus’ upper atmosphere, it forms from solar radiation interacting with sulfur dioxide, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.

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NASA Selects a Sample Return Mission to Venus

Graphic depiction of Sample Return from the Surface of Venus. Credit: Geoffrey Landis

In Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, the famous words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” adorn the gates of hell. Interestingly enough, Dante’s vision of hell is an apt description of what conditions are like on Venus. With an average temperature of 450 °C (842 °F), atmospheric pressures 92 times that of Earth, and clouds of sulfuric acid rain to boot, Venus is the most hostile environment in the Solar System. It is little wonder why space agencies, going all the way back to the beginning of the Space Age, have had such a hard time exploring Venus’ atmosphere.

Despite that, there are many proposals for missions that could survive Venus’ hellish environment long enough to accomplish a sample return mission. One such proposal, the Sample Return from the Surface of Venus, comes from aerospace engineer and author Geoffrey Landis and his colleagues at the NASA Glenn Research Center. Their proposed concept was selected for this year’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. It consists of a solar-powered aircraft that would fashion propellant directly from Venus’ atmosphere and deploy a sample-return rover to the surface.

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Should We Send Humans to Venus?

Artist rendition of proposed habitable airships traversing Venus’ atmosphere, which has been proposed as the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is preparing to send humans back to the Moon with the Artemis missions in the next few years as part of the agency’s Moon to Mars Architecture with the long-term goal of landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s or 2040s. But what about sending humans to other worlds of the Solar System? And, why not Venus? It’s closer to Earth than Mars by several tens of millions of kilometers, and despite its extremely harsh surface conditions, previous studies have suggested that life could exist in its clouds. In contrast, we have yet to find any signs of life anywhere on the Red Planet or in its thin atmosphere. So, should we send humans to Venus?

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Venus has Clouds of Concentrated Sulfuric Acid, but Life Could Still Survive

Image from NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft in February 1974 as it traveled away from Venus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The surface of Venus is like a scene from Dante’s Inferno – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” and so forth. The temperature is hot enough to melt lead, the air pressure is almost one hundred times that of Earth’s at sea level, and there are clouds of sulfuric acid rain to boot! But roughly 48 to 60 km (30 to 37.3 mi) above the surface, the temperatures are much cooler, and the air pressure is roughly equal to Earth’s at sea level. As such, scientists have speculated that life could exist above the cloud deck (possibly in the form of microbes) as it does on Earth.

Unfortunately, these clouds are not composed of water but of concentrated sulfuric acid, making the likelihood that life could survive among them doubtful. However, a new study led by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals that the basic building blocks of life (nucleic acid bases) are stable in concentrated sulfuric acid. These findings indicate that Venus’ atmosphere could support the complex chemistry needed for life to survive, which could have profound implications in the search for habitable planets and extraterrestrial life.

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The Clouds of Venus Could Support Life

Image of Venus taken by NASA’s Pioneer-Venus Orbiter in 1979. (Credit: NASA)

A recent study published in Astrobiology examines the likelihood of the planet Venus being able to support life within the thick cloud layer that envelopes it. This study holds the potential to help us better understand how life could exist under the intense Venusian conditions, as discussions within the scientific community about whether life exists on the second planet from the Sun continue to burn hotter than Venus itself.

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Rocket Lab is Sending its own Mission to Venus to Search for Life

In a recent study published in Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics, the private space company, Rocket Lab, outlines a plan to send their high-energy Photon spacecraft to Venus in May 2023 with the primary goal of searching for life within the Venusian atmosphere. The planet Venus has become a recent hot topic in the field of astrobiology, which makes the high-energy Photon mission that much more exciting.

Rocket Lab hopes to build off their recent successful launch of the CAPSTONE mission using its Photon satellite bus, and consists of a CubeSat designed to study the near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon and its applications for long-term missions such as Gateway.

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Bad News, Life Probably can’t Exist on Venus. Good News, it Could be in Jupiter’s Clouds

Jupiter from Juno Perijove 29 - NASA/JPL/Kevin Gil

For decades, scientists engaged in the search for life in the Universe (aka. astrobiology) have focused on searching for life on other Earth-like planets. These included terrestrial (aka. rocky) planets beyond our Solar System (extrasolar planets) and ones here at home. Beyond Earth, Mars is considered to be the most habitable planet next to Earth, and scientists have also theorized that life could exist (in microbial form) in the cloud tops of Venus.

In all cases, a major focal point is whether or not planets have large bodies of water on their surfaces (or did in the past). However, a new study led by a research team from the UK and German (with support from NASA) has shown that the existence of life may have less to do with the quantity of water and more to with the presence of atmospheric water molecules. As a result, we may have better luck finding life on Jupiter’s turbulent cloud deck than Venus’.

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