Life Could Make Habitable Pockets in Venus’ Atmosphere

The tantalizing possibility that life exists in the clouds of Venus is once again causing a stir amongst planetary scientists this week. Researchers out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University, and the University of Cambridge have proposed that some longstanding ‘anomalies’ in the composition of Venus’ atmosphere might be explained by the presence of ammonia. But ammonia itself would be a strange compound to discover there, unless some unknown process – such as biological life – was actively producing it. Perhaps more intriguingly, ammonia can remove the acidity from Venus’ hostile cloud-tops, suggesting that an airborne, ammonia-producing microbe might have evolved the ability to turn its hostile surroundings into something habitable.

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Floating “Aerobats” Could be the Best way to Explore the Cloud Tops of Venus

According to multiple lines of evidence, Venus was once a much different planet than it is today. But roughly 500 million years ago, a massive resurfacing event triggered a runaway greenhouse effect that led to the hot, poisonous, and hellish environment we see there today. Therefore, the study of Venus presents an opportunity to model the evolution of planetary environments, which can serve as a reference for what could happen in the future.

In the coming years, NASA plans to send lighter-than-air missions to Venus to explore the atmosphere above the cloud tops, where temperatures are stable and atmospheric pressure is comparable to that of Earth. With support from NASA, engineers at West Virginia University (WVU) are developing software that will enable balloon-based aerial robots (aerobots) to survey Venus’ atmosphere in small fleets.

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Eggshell Planets Have a Thin Brittle Crust and No Mountains or Tectonics

Planets without plate tectonics are unlikely to be habitable. But currently, we’ve never seen the surface of an exoplanet to determine if plate tectonics are active. Scientists piece together their likely surface structures from other evidence. Is there a way to determine what exoplanets might be eggshells, and eliminate them as potentially habitable?

The authors of a newly-published paper say there is.

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A new Climate Model Suggests That Venus Never had Oceans

Thanks to evidence provided by missions like NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, scientists have theorized that Venus likely experienced a catastrophic resurfacing event about 500 million years ago (give or take 200 Mya). This is believed to be the reason why Venus is such a hellish place today, with an atmosphere that is 92 times as dense as Earth’s, predominantly composed of carbon dioxide (CO2), and temperatures hot enough to melt lead.

The question of what Venus was like before this event took place – particularly, whether or not it had oceans – has been the subject of debate ever since. While many believe that Venus’s surface was covered in large bodies of water, a recent study has contradicted this claim. Using a state-of-the-art climate model, a team of French researchers has developed an alternative scenario of how Venus evolved to become what it is today.

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There’s Enough Sunlight Getting Through Venus’ Clouds to Support High-Altitude Life

Carl Sagan once famously, and sarcastically, observed that, since we couldn’t see what was going on on the surface of Venus, there must be dinosaurs living there.  Once humans started landing probes on the planet’s surface, any illusion of a lush tropical world was quickly dispelled.  Venus was a hellscape of extraordinary temperatures and pressures that would make it utterly inhospitable to anything resembling Earth life.  

But more recently, astrobiologists have again turned their attention to the Morning Star.  But this time, instead of looking at the surface, they looked in the clouds.  And now, a new study from researchers at California Polytechnic, Pomona, has calculated that there is likely a layer in the atmosphere where photosynthesis can occur. Meaning there is a zone in Venus’ cloud layer where life could have evolved.

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The Early Solar System was Messier and More Violent Than Previously Believed

Our conventional models of planet formation may have to be updated, according to a pair of new papers.

Accretion is the keyword in current planet formation theory. The idea is that the planets formed out of the solar nebula, the material left over after the Sun formed. They did this through accretion, where small particles accumulate into more massive objects. These massive boulder-sized objects, called planetesimals, continued to merge together into larger entities, sometimes through collisions. Eventually, through repeated mergers and collisions, the inner Solar System was populated by four rocky planets.

But the new research suggests that the collisions played out much differently than thought and that objects collided with each other several times, in a series of hit and runs, before merging. This research fills some stubborn holes in our current understanding.

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Two Spacecraft are Flying Past Venus, Just 33 Hours Apart

When Longfellow wrote about “ships passing in the night” back in 1863, he probably wasn’t thinking about satellites passing near Venus.  He probably also wouldn’t have considered 575,000 km separation as “passing”, but on the scale of interplanetary exploration, it might as well be.  And passing is exactly what two satellites will be doing near Venus in the next few days – performing two flybys of the planet within 33 hours of each other.

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Observing the Night Side of Venus is Actually Pretty Tricky

Observing the dark side of planets is hard. In the visible spectrum, they are almost unobservable, while in the infrared some heat signatures may come through, but not enough to help see what is going on in a planet’s atmosphere.  Now a team from the University of Tokyo think they’ve developed a way to monitor weather patterns on the night side of one of the most difficult planets of all – Venus.

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