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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#203 - Eric Berger and Life On Venus

This week Interview guest Eric Berger gives a no holds barred view on the state of global rocketry. We chat about an Armenian Legend and the chances of life in the clouds of Venus.


OTD 18 September

1980 Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was the first person from Cuba to fly to space, on Soyuz 38

18 September 2006 Anousheh Ansari was the first person from Iran to fly to space, on Soyuz TMA-9

1977 – Voyager I takes the first distant photograph of the Earth and the Moon together.


Space legend of the Week.

Viktor Ambartsumian born in Tiflis on 18 September 1908 the Capital of Georgia now known as Tbilisi. Unlike his astronomy buddies at the time he was a survivor of the Stalin purges. A Schmidt telescope with a 40inch correcting plate and 52-inch mirror probably made by Carl Zeiss AG in Nazi Germany in the 1930s but acquired as spoils of war were used in an observatory Viktor built in Armenia. Making Armenia a world-class Astrophysics destination. Ambartsumian's life spanned the whole period of existence of the USSR. Within the Soviet Union, his political skills made him a member of the Supreme Soviet and one of the most powerful scientists of his time.

His major achievements include!!

1947 - Discovery of Stellar associations: loose star clusters, looser than open clusters or globular clusters. They normally contain from 10 to 100 or more stars. Importantly these stars share a common origin, but have become gravitationally unbound and are still moving together through space. Association identified by their common movement direction, age and chemical composition. "associations have to be dynamically unstable configurations, and must expand subsequently, dissolving to form field stars." It then follows that star formation is still happening, and they are born explosively in groups

The great Chandrasekhar noted that Ambartsumian's discovery of stellar associations had "far-reaching implications for subsequent theories relating to star formation." Massive in other words. He’d be pretty bang out just for this ...but there is more to come!!

1957 - Active galactic nuclei (AGN): He found that clusters of galaxies were unstable and that galaxy formation is still ongoing. "enormous explosions take place in galactic nuclei and as a result, a huge amount of mass is expelled. In addition, if this is so, these galactic nuclei must contain bodies of huge mass and unknown nature."

Later he was to become a pioneer in astronomical research from Soviet spacecraft.

He was a quiet charismatic man, from a history written by Donald Lynden-Bell a British theoretical astrophysicist, with whom I had the pleasure of having an evening meal with after the premiere of the film “Star Men” Thank you, Dan Bartley. Lynden-Bell was one of the first people that grasped the AGN idea and replaced the explosive element with blackholes and accretion discs in the ’70s


Story of the week has to be the one that was breaking on twitter at the weekend and in random corners of the internet and finally broken on Monday.

Life in the Clouds of Venus!!!


Published: 16 September 1967 ----Exactly 53 years ago!!! ...spooky!

Life in the Clouds of Venus?


An abstract that starts!

WHILE the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether.

And ends with the phrase,

it is by no means difficult to imagine an indigenous biology in the clouds of Venus. What follows is one such speculation

Then Via the papers of Grinspoon, (1997) and Cockell (1999)

Exactly 2 years ago Venus' Spectral Signatures and the Potential for Life in the Clouds

Sanjay S. Limaye

An abstract that starts

The lower cloud layer of Venus (47.5–50.5 km) is an exceptional target for exploration due to the favorable conditions for microbial life, including moderate temperatures and pressures (∼60°C and 1 atm), and the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols. And ends with Together, our lines of reasoning suggest that particles in Venus' lower clouds contain sufficient mass balance to harbor microorganisms, water, and solutes, and potentially sufficient biomass to be detected by optical methods. As such, the comparisons presented in this article warrant further investigations into the prospect of biosignatures in Venus' clouds

Why haven’t we been more excited about this prospect,

Well actually we did argue this case way back on our Mars V Venus episode!

The most recent paper!

Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus

Jane S. Greaves et al

I have to say I probably got over-excited on the pre-release of this, however, it really might be massive, but of course, finding life requires evidence and this isn’t direct evidence. But it’s pretty good anyway.

I think it might be worth gambling that this is life as long as you get good odds.

Also, this paper is very important in terms of being able to hunt for exoplanets with life. We can test planets in our own system and it’s easier to actually get better evidence, to see if the theories are correct. So the ability to interpret signal is just as important as our ability to get the signals.

The paper is probably more about reaching out to the community and saying, hey we’ve found this Phosphine Gas! We can’t think of anything that could cause this, of course we know life can; think penguin poo, but can you think of anything else?

Jane Greaves from Cardiff University and her team detected the “spectral signature” of phosphine through observations made with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii, and then confirmed again with data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile.

we emphasize that the detection of PH3 is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry

But it’s worth noting here that Phosphine as a Biosignature Gas in Exoplanet Atmospheres

Clara Sousa-Silva et al

Clara Sousa e Silva - MELANIE GONICK

Published at the start of the year, (you know when we thought 2020 was going to great). Clara Sousa-Silva, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences really does seem to be the biosignature legend boss person. On Earth, PH3 is associated with anaerobic ecosystems, and as such, it is a potential biosignature gas in anoxic exoplanets. Phosphine is a promising biosignature gas, as it has no known abiotic false positives on terrestrial planets from any source that could generate the high fluxes required for detection.

In this case, they were not expecting Venus to have Phospine the scientists were really just checking the gear out. Like testing a camera in your garden before going on a safari only to discover a picture of a rare wild big cat on the camera roll!!!

Professor Greaves says,

“This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

Tantalising Clara Sousa Silva talks about if Venus was more earth like in the past and then faced climate change or runaway greenhouse.

“As Venus became less hospitable, life would have had to adapt, and they could now be in this narrow envelope of the atmosphere where they can still survive. This could show that even a planet at the edge of the habitable zone could have an atmosphere with a local aerial habitable envelope.”

So my takeaways from this are

Scientists have been working for ages to work out what biosignature gases are good, and Phosphine has come as a good one because a lot of research has been done and so far drawn a blank as to any process on rocket planet that could cause the gas naturally.

So the exciting thing is this, it will mean we really don’t understand rocky planets, not even Venus and its atmosphere, despite being our neighbour. OR ... even more excitingly (and that might mean more unlikely of course) there is life in the freaking clouds of Venus!!!

We will see a lot of interest in Venus again!!!

Maybe the Venus flyby option on the way to Mars is going to make the whole Mars mission totally worth while ...this becomes super exciting.

The detection of phosphine greatly adds to the mystery of the Venusian environment and motivates in situ follow up sampling missions to Venus.

Several proposed missions in the Pipleine:

Flagship-class mission concept multi-spacecraft concept led by Martha Gilmore Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, of Wesleyan University, Gilmore’s concept includes several orbiters and a balloon that would closely study the Venusian atmosphere and look for signs of life.

Launch ~2029-2032

1 Orbiter

2 Orbiting SmallSats

2 Short-lived landers/Probes

1 Balloon

1 Long-lived lander (LLISSE)

Carry ESPA ring

Cost $2B

DAVINCI+is one of the four finalists in NASA’s Discovery program competition. The next mission selection is scheduled to take place in 2021. Great Timing!!!!

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus) to analyze Venus' atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved and determine whether Venus ever had an ocean DAVINCI would be the first probe since 1986 to target Venus's atmosphere. Following five orbital missions to Venus (Venera 15, Venera 16, Magellan, Venus Express, Akatsuki)

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) to map Venus' surface to determine the planet's geologic history and understand why Venus developed so differently than the Earth, using synthetic aperture radar,

EnVision is a proposed orbiter mission aiming at determining the level and nature of the geological activity and the sequence of events that generated the surface features of Venus, assessing whether Venus once had oceans (and was thus perhaps hospitable for life) and understanding the geodynamics framework that controls the release of internal heat over Venus’ history. EnVision will use a number of different techniques to search for active geological processes, measure changes in surface temperature associated with active volcanism, characterise regional and local geological features, determine crustal support mechanisms and constrain mantle and core properties.

The M-class mission would be launched on an Ariane 6.2 in 2032, arriving at Venus after a five-month cruise

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