Terraforming is the process by which inhabitable planets can be made favourable for living on. Obviously, in our case, that would mean making a planet that creatures from Earth can live on. The process involves deliberately changing a planet’s ecology and atmosphere, which goes on to affect various factors such as temperature, pressure, etc. The goal is to transform the conditions into something as close as possible to the Earth’s. This has been a dream for decades, right since well-known astronomer Carl Sagan had proposed the same for Venus, and then Mars. With a similar goal in mind, the Indian Astrobiology Research Centre (IARC) is working on a terraforming mission of Venus. Based in Mumbai and Surat, IARC’s primary research is on Panspermia or the hypothesis that life exists throughout the universe and is transported across asteroids, comets and planetoids. Bijayan Venus Mission wants to be the first project to initiate the terraforming of the second planet from the Sun. The name “Bijayan” is derived from two Sanskrit words, where “bij” means seed and “ayan” means journey. Essentially, together they mean the journey of a seed. This “seed” will be a set of carefully selected microorganisms that will be injected into the planet’s atmosphere to trigger the terraforming of Venus.
The Bijayan Venus Mission
Stated to be “primarily a demonstration of intent”, the main details of the mission have been listed on their website and only a few things have been finalised until now. The primary mission challenge is an orbital transfer of the spacecraft to Venus. It will rely on a flyby for orbital insertion of the payload into the atmosphere, hence it’s being considered as an orbiter mission for now. The nano-spacecraft will be built in Mumbai and Surat, with a lower limit of 3 kg and an upper limit of 10 kg. The final mass of the entire spacecraft hasn’t been finalised as it depends on the configuration of the payload. India is already known to have successfully carried out cost-effective outer space missions in the past. However, those were official ISRO missions whereas the Bijayan Venus mission is being planned solely by the IARC in collaboration with other institutes and organisations. The team is trying to keep this mission economical and only sticking to one primary goal of successfully delivering the payload into the Venusian atmosphere.
Bijayan Venus is the first outer space mission planned by IARC and probably the first in India. The conceptualisation and initial blueprints along with the collaborations will be self-funded under the Indian Astrobiology Research Funds (IARF). The primary projected cost allocated is around USD 25,000. Once this stage has been passed, they will be looking for other sources of funding including individuals who are interested in funding the mission. For starters, the cost is predicted to be around USD 1 million. These expenses will include a low-cost launch platform, orbital transfer options and other craft-integrity specs.
IARC isn’t going to work on this mission alone and is already collaborating with other institutes and organisations. A few collaborators have officially signed onto the project including Satyabhama University from Chennai, Bellatrix Aerospace from Bangalore, and VIT University from Vellore. The collaborators have their own distinct roles to play in the project. Satyabhama University will be taking care of preparing the microbes and conducting Venus simulation tests. Bellatrix Aerospace is a private company developing orbital launch vehicles and electric propulsion systems. They’ll be responsible of taking the nano-spacecraft to the Venusian orbit, at a lower cost compared to ISRO according to IARC. Finally, VIT University will also conduct research into preparing the microbes and work on dispersal mechanisms to inject the microbes into Venus’ atmosphere.
Venus was primarily chosen because of its close resemblance to Earth. According to Pushkar Vaidya, Mission Head of Bijayan Venus, “Terraforming makes sense for Venus more than any other planetary body in our solar system”. Both the planets have a similar mass and size, and the most important point is its thick atmosphere. The idea of terraforming Mars has been going on for quite some time but the biggest problem is the absence of a considerable atmosphere on the red planet. Venus has a rich atmosphere composed of about 96.5% of carbon dioxide which pushes the surface pressure to 90 times greater than Earth. We already know that Venus is crazy hot, with an average surface temperature of 467 degrees Celsius. There’s no magnetic field present on the planet due to its slow rotation, hence it’s highly radioactive without any defense from the harmful rays from solar eruptions. If that wasn’t enough to make life unfavourable, sulphuric acid rain is a common occurrence. Humans, or most organisms on Earth for that matter, won’t be able to survive this environment, but there are few tough microorganisms living among us who might.
The microbe payload
Selecting the right organisms for this mission is highly critical for the ultimate goal of the mission – initiating terraforming of the planet. In order to achieve that there are two major challenges. The first is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while the second is to lower the surface temperature. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, so it traps all the heat, and since it dominates the atmosphere, it’s responsible for the crazy temperatures capable of melting lead. Hence, if the amount of carbon dioxide goes down, the temperatures will gradually fall down. The basic criteria for the microbes will be its capability of overcoming these two challenges. However, the extreme conditions of the atmosphere need to be taken into picture and survivability needs to be ensured. This will be the next set of criteria for the microbes.
Surviving in these extreme conditions isn’t possible for regular organisms on Earth. Hence, it’s a job for extremophiles. These microorganisms can survive and even thrive in extreme living conditions like high and low temperatures, high radiation zones, and even highly acidic areas. Considering the harsh atmospheric conditions of Venus, several extremophiles seem to fit a few of those. The possible candidates or rather the “chosen ones” to terraform Venus include cyanobacteria species, acidophiles, thermophiles, and polyextremophiles. Cyanobacteria is capable of photosynthesis and with an abundant supply of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they will be able to convert it into oxygen if they manage to thrive. However, they will require magnesium and phosphorus, and other nutrients in order to support photosynthesis, which seems unlikely. Acidophiles will be able to endure the harmful sulphuric acid in the clouds while thermophiles will be able to take on high temperatures (but not even close to the average surface temperature of Venus). The polyextremophile chosen for now are tardigrades or water bears. You’re probably aware of these alien-looking bears that go viral every year, popular for their extreme survival capabilities, normally fatal for many organisms. They are the toughest microbes in the team, riding with high expectations on their tiny heads. These aren’t the final microbes that will be sent, and we can expect more extremophiles to be added later after the Announcement of Opportunity (AO) is released in the upcoming months. As a rule, only non-pathogenic microbes will be used for the mission to avoid any harmful effects in the future.
Delivering the microbes into the Venusian atmosphere is riddled with risks where mistakes could be fatal for the mission. Rather than dropping off a lander or probe into the atmosphere, the IARC team intends to inject the microbes into Venus’ atmosphere. Two approaches are being considered here. A spray-trap mechanism where the microbes will simply be sprayed while the nano-spacecraft is in orbit. And the other mechanism being considered is emptying the tank of microbes all at once. The mechanism hasn’t been finalised yet. The success of the Bijayan Venus Mission will be determined after the microbes have been injected into the atmosphere.
The payload needs to ensure the survivability of the microbes while in transit to Venus which is also the secondary mission challenge. The quantity of microbes to be sent hasn’t been finalised and it relies on the type of the spacecraft. It’s dependent on the total mission cost where the payload capacity will be adjusted accordingly. Pushkar stated that even 1 kg of microbes will be enough as they will multiply in favourable conditions.
The next step
With the mission objective fulfilled, the microbes may or may not survive in the harsh environment. If they do, a future mission will be planned to retrieve those microbes. The selected microbes are going to be genetically marked before they are sent to Venus. This will make it easy to identify whether they were the same microbes that we had sent. The chances are quite low for Venus to harbour microbial life as it’s already been classified as a Category II object according to COSPAR standards. But still, as a precaution, they will be marked to help us differentiate them from any possible Venusian life forms. The Bijayan microbes will be detectable using spectral analysis if they manage to flourish.
The biggest hurdles to cross
Apart from building the different components of the mission including the launch vehicle, payload and instruments, Bijayan faces a few challenges. The possibility of initiating the terraforming comes after the extremophiles surviving the extremely hot atmosphere in the first place. Even if the high radiation levels and high pressure can be endured by our tough micro test subjects, the insanely high surface temperature might just sabotage the mission. But back in 2014, the Venus Express probe returned some fascinating data about the poles, where at a distance of 130 to 140 kilometres from the surface, the temperatures were much colder than Earth. The lowest recorded temperature was about minus 157 degrees Celsius, a piece of cake for the tough tardigrades as they are capable of surviving at temperatures as low as minus 272 degrees Celsius. But again, they can’t survive in such extreme conditions for a long period. Since this temperature zone is located near the surface, we don’t know whether the microbes will survive the extreme heat as they pass through the atmosphere. Then again, targeting the polar regions with a different dispersion mechanism, ensuring that it survives the free fall might just work out.
The idea of terraforming other planets has been under scrutiny for decades and it has been surrounded by a lot of debate on ethics. Dealing with the ethics of terraforming is a completely different ballpark that argues whether we should be playing God by affecting the natural processes of other planets. As a precaution for research purposes, it completely makes sense not to disturb planetary systems where microbial or any form of life exists. Several planets out there might support a different form of life unknown to us, and allowing another life form to peacefully co-exist is something many critics have encouraged.
When spacecrafts or astronauts are sent to space, they need to be sterilised before blasting off. We don’t want to send off Earthly-microorganisms to other worldly bodies if we are seeking answers to chemical evolution or origins of life on that body. These microbes might just explosively proliferate in an alien environment, which will be detrimental to our own research. This is phenomenon is called forward contamination. And this could be a possibility on Venus. Contamination is a serious issue when it comes to space exploration. In order to avoid any grave consequences, the Bijayan team has made it clear that they’ll be only sending off non-pathogenic microbes. The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has a planetary protection policy across five categories to prevent biological contamination in outer space exploration missions. NASA also has a dedicated position, called the Planetary Protection Officer, responsible of ensuring there’s none (ideally) or minimal contamination on their spacecrafts going for outer space missions. The United Nations Outer Space Treaty covers contamination under Article IX along with other frameworks to govern a responsible and peaceful exploration of outer space. It’s like an international space law that has been ratified or officially signed by India.
The Bijayan team will soon be releasing a white paper of their project considering the UNOOSA (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs) treaties and COSPAR guidelines by the end of this year. Since Bijayan is an outer space mission, there is lesser framework required compared to Earth-orbit satellite missions. Also, Bijayan is going to be a passenger on the rocket which means they don’t have to deal with too much of the framework. The details of the framework including approvals by the Department of Space (India) will be addressed in the paper. This year ISRO received funding for a second Mars mission and a maiden voyage to Venus. ISRO also started accepting proposals for space-based experiments to study Venus, an orbiter mission that will probably happen after 2020. However, IARC stated that they haven’t sent any proposals to ISRO for the mission yet.
Slated for a 2023 launch, IARC is expected to release more information about the mission soon. Stay tuned, we will bring you updates as and when we have them.