- In mid-September, astronomers announced that they detected a sign of possible microbial life on Venus: the presence of phosphine gas.
- The discovery requires some follow-up research. Fortunately, a spacecraft is scheduled to fly by Venus on Wednesday night.
- The BepiColumbo spacecraft will swing by the planet en route to Mercury.
- One of its instruments may be able to confirm phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere, but the possibilities are slim because the instrument may not be sensitive enough to detect low levels of phosphine.
- For more stories visit the Business Insider homepage.
When Zern Helbert discovered that a team of astronomers had discovered phosphine gas on Venus, he was excited.
Naturally, phosphine is produced only by bacteria on Earth. Therefore, the presence of phosphine gas on Venus can mean harm to the alien life of the planet.
But the planetary researchers at the German Aerospace Center were particularly pleased with the time of the Halbert discovery. It just happened that Bepicolombo, a spacecraft they are using for research, was on the way to Venus at that moment. What’s more, it was a device on board that could potentially detect phosphine in the superheated planet’s atmosphere.
“It’s fantastic,” Halbert told Business Insider of the Timing. “Able to take [this] Data makes me very happy. ”
At the time of publication of the Nature Study in mid-September, Bepicolombo was just over a month ahead of Venus. Now, its approach is near. It is scheduled to fly by the planet late at night on Wednesday, October 14, reaching its nearest point at 11:58 PM ET.
At its nearest point, BepiColumbo would be about 6,200 miles (10,000 km) from Venus, which might be too far for a good read. The infrared instrument is onboard in Helbert, called MERTIS for short, it is better suited for Mercury, its final destination.
After running some tests with his team, Helbert said that he determined that MERTS could potentially measure phosphine in the planet if there is much more. The Nature article estimated that Venus’ atmosphere contained only 20 parts per billion of phosphine, which the MERTS instrument could not detect.
“Based on what we have calculated so far, if phosphine is only at the level indicated in the calculation [Nature] The article we will most likely not be able to find out, “Halbert told Business Insider in an email.” If there is enough, we will be able to see it. “Phosphine levels must be somewhere in the parts. – Million range,” he said.
Detection of Phosphine on Venus
The MERTS instrument, which measures the heat energy emitted by objects, was designed to study the surface structure of Mercury. Different elements give different heat signatures, which MERTS uses to create images that the researchers studied.
“Basically what we’re seeing is heat coming from the planet,” Halbert said. “That’s why it is brilliant for Mercury, because it is a very hot planet with a strong heat signature.”
Venus is hot, too, but MERTS was designed to detect minerals on the surface of a planet, not gases in its atmosphere, such as phosphine on Venus. And to take detailed infrared images of an atmosphere, a high-resolution instrument would be needed, Halbert said.
“For a surface device, MERTIS has higher resolution,” Halbert explained. “For environments, it has a lower resolution.”
A mission for mercury
BepiColumbo launched in October 2018. It is carrying two satellites: one from the European Space Agency and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Its mission calls these satellites to detect Mercury from different angles.
BepiColumbo is scheduled to enter Mercury’s orbit in December 2025. Before that, however, it had to slow down enough for the planet to be captured by gravity. So it is flying by Mercury six times – and before that, twice by Venus – using the gravitational forces of the planets to stop its motion.
Even though Halbert’s team is unable to detect phosphine this week, they will soon have another chance: in August 2021, the spacecraft will again fly from Venus. At that time, the scientists behind the mission would have taken about a year to get ready, and would have learned from that first flyby. Furthermore, BepiColumbo will next reach very close to Venus – just 340 miles (550 km) away.
To first detect phosphine on flyby, the team must be “very, very lucky”, Halbert previously told Forbes. “On the other, we only have to be very lucky.”