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The detection of phosphine in Venus' clouds is a big deal – here's how we can find out if it really is life – The Conversation US

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On Sept. 14, 2020, a new planet was added to the list of potentially habitable worlds in the Solar System: Venus.

Phosphine, a toxic gas made up of one phosphorus and three hydrogen atoms (PH₃), commonly produced by organic life forms but otherwise difficult to make on rocky planets, was discovered in the middle layer of the Venus atmosphere. This raises the tantalizing possibility that something is alive on our planetary neighbor. With this discovery, Venus joins the exalted ranks of Mars and the icy moons Enceladus and Europa among planetary bodies where life may once have existed, or perhaps might even still do so today.

I’m a planetary scientist and something of a Venus evangelical. This discovery is one of the most exciting made about Venus in a very long time — and opens up a new set of possibilities for further exploration in search of life in the Solar System.

Venus as seen in the infrared by the Japanese Akatsuki spacecraft. The warm colors are from the hot lower atmosphere glowing through the cooler cloud layers above. Image credit: JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic.
JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

Atmospheric mysteries

First, it’s critical to point out that this detection does not mean that astronomers have found alien life in the clouds of Venus. Far from it, in fact.

Although the discovery team identified phosphine at Venus with two different telescopes, helping to confirm the initial detection, phosphine gas can result from several processes that are unrelated to life, such as lightning, meteor impacts or even volcanic activity.

However, the quantity of phosphine detected in the Venusian clouds seems to be far greater than those processes are capable of generating, allowing the team to rule out numerous inorganic possibilities. But our understanding of the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere is sorely lacking: Only a handful of missions have plunged through the inhospitable, carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere to take samples among the global layer of sulfuric acid clouds.

So we planetary scientists are faced with two possibilities: Either there is some sort of life in the Venus clouds, generating phosphine, or there is unexplained and unexpected chemistry taking place there. How do we find out which it is?

A model of the Soviet Vega 1 spacecraft at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport. Vega 1 carried a balloon to Venus on its way to visit Halley’s Comet in 1985.
Daderot

First and foremost, we need more information about the abundance of PH₃ in the Venus atmosphere, and we can learn something about this from Earth. Just as the discovery team did, existing telescopes capable of detecting phosphine around Venus can be used for follow-up observations, to both definitively confirm the initial finding and figure out if the amount of PH₃ in the atmosphere changes with time. In parallel, there is now a huge opportunity to carry out lab work to better understand the types of chemical reactions that might be possible on Venus — for which we have very limited information at present.

Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope, on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes. The telescope was used to confirm the initial detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.
ESO/C. Malin.

Once more unto the breach

But measurements on and from Earth can take us only so far. To really get to the heart of this mystery, we need to go back to Venus. Spacecraft equipped with spectrometers that can detect phosphine from orbit could be dispatched to the second planet with the express purpose of characterizing where, and how much, of this gas is there. Because spacecraft can survive for many years in Venus’ orbit, we could obtain continuous observations with a dedicated orbiter over a much longer period than with telescopes on Earth.

But even orbital data can’t tell us the whole story. To fully get a handle on what’s happening at Venus, we have to actually get into the atmosphere. And that’s where aerial platforms come in. Capable of operating above much of the acidic cloud layer – where the temperature and pressure are almost Earthlike – for potentially months at a time, balloons or flying wings could take detailed atmospheric composition measurements there. These craft could even carry the kinds of instruments being developed to look for life on Europa. At that point, humanity might finally be able to definitively tell if we share our Solar System with Venusian life.

A concept for an aerial platform at Venus. Two connected balloons could take turns to inflate, allowing the balloon to control the altitude at which it floats. An instrument package would then hang from below the balloons.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new dawn for Venus exploration?

Thirty-one years have elapsed since the United States last sent a dedicated mission to Venus. That could soon change as NASA considers two of four missions in the late 2020s targeting Venus. One, called VERITAS, would carry a powerful radar to peer through the thick clouds and return unprecedented high-resolution images of the surface. The other, DAVINCI+, would plunge through the atmosphere, sampling the air as it descended, perhaps even able to sniff any phosphine present. NASA plans to pick at least one mission in April 2021.

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I have argued before for a return to Venus, and will continue to do so. Even without this latest scientific discovery, Venus is a compelling exploration target, with tantalizing evidence that the planet once had oceans and perhaps even suffered a hellish fate at the hands of its own volcanic eruptions.

But with the detection of a potential biomarker in Venus’ atmosphere, we now have yet another major reason to return to the world ancient Greek astronomers called Phosphorus — a name for Venus that, it turns out, is wonderfully prescient.

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NASA says probe successfully stowed sample from asteroid – FRANCE 24

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Issued on: 29/10/2020 – 22:32

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Washington (AFP)

NASA said Thursday its robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex was able to stow a rock and dust sample scooped up from the asteroid Bennu, after a flap that had wedged open put the mission at risk.

“We are here to announce today that we’ve successfully completed that operation,” said Rich Burns, the mission’s project manager.

The probe is on a mission to collect fragments that scientists hope will help unravel the origins of our solar system, but hit a snag after it picked up too big of a sample.

Fragments from the asteroid’s surface in a collector at the end of the probe’s three-meter (10-foot) arm had been slowly escaping into space because some rocks prevented the compartment from closing completely.

That arm is what came into contact with Bennu for a few seconds last Tuesday in the culmination of a mission launched from Earth some four years ago.

On Thursday, NASA said it had been able a day earlier to maneuver the robotic arm holding the leaking particles to a storage capsule near the center of the spacecraft, drop off the sample and close the capsule’s lid.

It was a delicate two-day procedure, requiring the team at each step to assess images and data from the previous step.

The probe is 200 million miles (320 million kilometers) away, so it takes 18.5 minutes for its transmissions to reach Earth, and any signal from the control room requires the same amount of time to reach Osiris-Rex.

“My heart breaks for loss of sample,” said Dante Lauretta, the mission’s chief scientist, but he noted that they had successfully stowed hundreds of grams (several ounces) of fragments, far in excess of their minimum goal.

“Now we can look forward to receiving the sample here on Earth and opening up that capsule,” he said.

Osiris-Rex is set to come home in September 2023, hopefully with the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.

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Asteroid samples tucked into capsule for return to Earth – Virden Empire Advance

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A NASA spacecraft more than 200 million miles away has tucked asteroid samples into a capsule for return to Earth, after losing some of its precious loot, scientists said Thursday.

Flight controllers moved up the crucial operation after some of the collected rubble spilled into space last week.

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The Osiris-Rex spacecraft gathered pebbles and other pieces of asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, briefly touching the surface with its robot arm and sucking up whatever was there. So much was collected — an estimated hundreds of grams’ worth — that rocks got wedged in the rim of the container and jammed it open, allowing some samples to escape.

Whatever is left won’t depart Bennu’s neighbourhood until March, when the asteroid and Earth are properly aligned. It will be 2023 — seven years after Osiris-Rex rocketed from Cape Canaveral — before the samples arrive here.

This is the first U.S. mission to go after asteroid samples. Japan has done it twice at other space rocks and expects its latest batch to arrive in December.

Rich in carbon, the solar-orbiting Bennu is believed to hold the preserved building blocks of the solar system. Scientists said the remnants can help explain how our solar system’s planets formed billions of years ago and how life on Earth came to be. The samples also can help improve our odds, they said, if a doomsday rock heads our way.

Bennu — a black, roundish rock bigger than New York’s Empire State Building — could come dangerously close to Earth late in the next decade. The odds of a strike are 1-in-2,700. The good news is that while packing a punch, it won’t wipe out the home planet.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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There’s a once-in-a-generation blue moon lighting the skies this Halloween — here’s when you can see it – Yahoo Canada Sports

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Something’s happening this Halloween that literally only comes once in a blue moon.” data-reactid=”17″>Something’s happening this Halloween that literally only comes once in a blue moon.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="A blue moon will light up the skies this Halloween, adding another level of intrigue to the spookiest night of the year. Or, it’s just a good chance to fill the costume party-sized hole in your Instagram feed.” data-reactid=”18″>A blue moon will light up the skies this Halloween, adding another level of intrigue to the spookiest night of the year. Or, it’s just a good chance to fill the costume party-sized hole in your Instagram feed.

Either way, the full moon will be visible on Oct. 31. Here’s everything you need to know about the event, and how to see it.

What is a blue moon, exactly?

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="To be clear, a blue moon isn’t actually blue. It’s just a term we use to describe the rare occurrence when we get two full moons in the same calendar month.” data-reactid=”21″>To be clear, a blue moon isn’t actually blue. It’s just a term we use to describe the rare occurrence when we get two full moons in the same calendar month.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="We already got a Harvest Moon on Oct. 1-2, so this will mark the month’s second fully lit sky. That might sound pretty normal, but it actually happens a lot less than you’d think.” data-reactid=”22″>We already got a Harvest Moon on Oct. 1-2, so this will mark the month’s second fully lit sky. That might sound pretty normal, but it actually happens a lot less than you’d think.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="According to the Farmers’ Almanac, a blue moon occurs every two and a half to three years, but, due to some funky calendar changes over the decades, it hasn’t happened on Halloween since 1944. That makes this a truly once-in-a-generation phenomenon.” data-reactid=”23″>According to the Farmers’ Almanac, a blue moon occurs every two and a half to three years, but, due to some funky calendar changes over the decades, it hasn’t happened on Halloween since 1944. That makes this a truly once-in-a-generation phenomenon.

How to see the blue moon on Halloween

The moon will be at its brightest at 10:49 a.m. EST. So, if you’re in the U.S., your best bet is to catch it in that sky early Halloween morning. Maybe set an alarm for while it’s still dark out if you want to catch the view.

It’s probably worth the wake-up, considering Mars will also be visible in the sky during that time. So, you’ll get a heavy dose of red and white (again, not blue!) shining through the sky over the weekend.

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When is the next blue moon?

Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on how superstitious you are), we won’t have to wait 76 years for this to happen again. The next Halloween blue moon is set to arrive in 2039.

Still, that’s a pretty long time to wait for a photo op, so it’s probably best to go ahead and get your pictures in now.

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Check out In The Know’s list of tips for vacationing amid the pandemic.” data-reactid=”38″>Check out In The Know’s list of tips for vacationing amid the pandemic.

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="The post How to see the once-in-a-generation blue moon this Halloween appeared first on In The Know.” data-reactid=”44″>The post How to see the once-in-a-generation blue moon this Halloween appeared first on In The Know.

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