University of Arkansas receives NASA grant to study atmosphere of Venus

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — University of Arkansas researchers received a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to study the interaction between the atmosphere and surface of Venus.

The $417,000, three-year award will provide the funding for UA researchers to simulate conditions on the surface of Earth’s neighboring planet in the W.M. Keck Laboratory’s Venus chamber, one of five such simulators at the university.

Venus’ atmosphere has properties of both a liquid and a gas close to the planet’s surface — making it a particular interest of researchers, according to Vincent Chevrier, an associate professor at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences.

“It is very thick and very hot, to a point that there is a transition between your classic atmosphere, which is a gas, and a supercritical fluid,” Chevrier said.

It’s not clear how minerals on the surface of Venus will react in the supercritical atmosphere because there are few places that can simulate the planet’s extreme conditions, Chervier said.

Atmospheric pressure at the planet’s surface is about 95 times higher than Earth’s, while the temperature reaches 460 degrees Celsius, or 860 degrees Fahrenheit.

The U of A’s Venus chamber, which is about the size of a soda can, is one of a few in the country and has been used for NASA-funded experiments in the past. 

The terrestrial planet’s atmosphere is largely made up of carbon dioxide, which acts as a solvent in a supercritical state — often used as a dry cleaning agent. “It can dissolve oil or other organics and it doesn’t leave any residue,” said Chevrier. “Maybe it can dissolve other materials on planetary surfaces, kind of like the ocean contains salt. Maybe there are compounds dissolved in the CO2 that could completely upset the balance and the chemical models in the atmosphere of Venus and completely change the way we see chemical models.”

According to Chevrier, the recent discovery of phosphine gas in Venus’ atmosphere is one example of the importance of the research. Phosphine gas is a marker of biological activity on earth. One possible explanation for the presence of phosphine is life, but he says there may be others.

“There could be a whole collection of reactions we do not really know about because they happen differently in a supercritical fluid,” Chevrier said. “That was one of my arguments against phosphine being a life marker. We need to exhaust all possible atmospheric scenarios before saying it is related to the existence of life.”

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