“In the Hunt for Aliens, Scientists Look Again to the Clouds of Venus”

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The Story

“In the Hunt for Aliens, Scientists Look Again to the Clouds of Venus”
by Sarah Witman
Wired, December 20, 2018

The Pitch

Freelance pitch: Scientists revisit Carl Sagan’s 50-year-old theory about life on Venus

Hi Ms. Moskvitch,

I’m a tech writer at Wirecutter (of the New York Times) and a freelance science writer. Over the past few years, I’ve written about efforts to restore the decimated Aral Sea for Discover, preventing HIV transmission in Malawi for the Pacific Standard, the tragic story of the 1920s “Radium Girls” for Undark, and more. I’m working on a new piece that I think could be a good fit for your section—here’s the pitch:

This piece would discuss how, in the late 1950s, on the heels of the formation of NASA, Carl Sagan and a few other top scientists met up at a bar after a conference lecture to discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the atmosphere of Venus—a notion that is just starting to be actively explored through current and planned research missions.

Sagan (and one of his drinking buddies, Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz) went on to publish a paper in the journal Nature called “Life in the Clouds of Venus?” In it, they imagined roundish, thin-skinned organisms filled with hydrogen, the size of a ping-pong ball or even larger, hovering in a habitable layer of the atmosphere—somewhere above the planet’s fiery surface and below its cold, arid cloudtops.

In these early days of NASA, the idea of exploring Venus for signs of life was already greatly overshadowed by a rabid interest in Mars—and, to this day, few missions to Venus get greenlit. But the authors of a paper published in September in the journal Astrobiology make the case that sulfur-rich dark patches seen in Venus’ atmosphere could harbor water and bacteria or other microorganisms—much like algae blooms that form in lakes on Earth. When I interviewed lead researcher Sanjay Limaye, he explained the joint research his team is conducting with Japan’s Akatsuki mission, which is set to collect an unprecedented set of Venusian atmospheric data. The team is also working to help develop an aircraft that could sample the clouds of Venus as part of Russia’s Roscosmos Venera-D mission slated for the late 2020s. 

It still might take a decade or more to confirm or disprove Sagan and Morowitz’s original cocktail-fueled theory—but, for the first time since the dawn of NASA, it’s looking like a real possibility.

I envision this piece ultimately being about 1,500 words—it would set the scene of the original conversation between Sagan and his colleagues, and then jump to the work that Limaye and his team are doing (finally) to study the theory of life in the atmosphere of Venus, all the while explaining how and why funding for Venus exploration has historically taken a backseat to Mars. In addition to the interviews I’ve already done with Limaye, I’d like to talk to some of the speakers at NASA’s Venus Exploration Analysis Group annual meeting (which took place earlier this month) about the near-term future of Venus research in the U.S.

Thanks for taking the time to consider my pitch! I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, and/or send along contact info for editors who can attest to my reporting and writing abilities.

All the best,

Sarah Witman

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