Is there life on Venus? Most planetary scientists would say ‘no’, or at least ‘unlikely’ – despite being almost a twin to Earth in size, the second planet from the Sun is the closest thing we might imagine to being hell. With surface temperatures close to 900°F, even the Devil might be looking for a vacation to a cooler climate.
And yet, in 2012, a senior Russian planetary scientist claimed not only that Venusian creatures existed, but that they had already been photographed. With all the modern publicity for Mars exploration – especially by the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers – it is often forgotten that the former Soviet Union successfully landed probes on Venus nine times in the thirteen year period between 1972 and 1985. By virtue of the hellish conditions on the planet’s surface, these missions were short affairs – the longest any of them survived once on the ground was a little over two hours.
But during their short Venusian encounters, a number of these probes did transmit photos back to their orbiters, taken from a camera that repeatedly scanned across the panorama. Apart from giving us a glimpse of the alien landscape, Russian scientist Leonid Ksanfomaliti has suggested these images might also show us alien life.
Ksanfomaliti was inspired to re-analyse the images by the many recent discoveries of exoplanets of many sizes and conditions, which made him question whether we have made a mistake in thinking that life likely only exists under Earth-like conditions. Another factor might have been the ongoing discovery in modern times of many ‘extremophiles’ on Earth: organisms that live in conditions well beyond what we previously thought life was capable of.
To search for signs of life, Ksanfomaliti compared multiple images of the same area, taken at different times as the cameras scanned backward and forwards over the landscape, looking for changing – that is, moving – elements. The challenge then was to figure out whether anything that moved was living, or instead some sort of non-biological phenomena (e.g. dirt being blown by wind), or effects of changing light, digital imaging artifacts and so on.
His startling conclusion: the images do indeed show forms of life, including one that he nicknamed a ‘scorpion’. Because Venus isn’t hellish enough already, am I right?
At the blog of the Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla was impressed enough by Ksanfomaliti’s credentials that she decided to critically evaluate his claim, despite it seeming “so obviously ridiculous” that she would “ordinarily not give it a second thought.” With a strong understanding of image transmission and processing in planetary exploration, she was less than impressed by his analysis:
With all of these natural and artificial reasons why there may be changes in pixel values from one image to the next, it’s hazardous to read too much into small changes of blobby shapes. But that’s exactly what Ksanfomaliti goes on to do. There is a bold sentence in the paper that I asked Twitter help in translation, and it reads: “It must be emphasized that in the present work on the processing of the initial images images any retouching, drawing-in, additions to, or adjustment of images was completely ruled out.” And he says that the use of Photoshop was “categorically ruled out.” Yet he goes on to say that adjustments were, in fact, made. Missing bits of images were filled in with data from other images, contrast and brightness adjusted, and (most strangely), the “Blur” and “sharpen” functions in Microsoft Windows Paint were sometimes employed. These are all fairly standard operations in image processing (except for the use of Windows Paint instead of Photoshop for blur and sharpen filters, which is just odd), but they are most definitely “adjustments” of images, especially that blur and sharpen business. Sharpening, in particular, can have weird effects on noisy images.
…There is so much variation in noise among these five images, and they have been so processed with sharpening and infilling of data, that I think it is pointless to micro-analyze tiny little features and whether they have changed, much less whether they represent the presence of moving, living creatures or not. These images are much less convincing even than those of the Mars Sasquatch.
What was perhaps most surprising to Lakdawalla was how such a respected and knowledgeable planetary scientist could come up with something “so patently off the wall”. Someone noted to her that Ksanfomaliti has always been interested in ideas “slightly on the edge of reality”, while another suggested that perhaps three decades of analysing old data sets might make anyone crazy. Her own thoughts, however, were more about the dangers in being so smart that you convince yourself that your new theory is the start of a new paradigm:
I’ve seen before when successful people become so convinced that they are smart and right that they go over some edge and suddenly think that any crazy idea that flits into their head must be right, because they thought it and they’re always right, right? There’s no way for me to know what’s made Ksanfomaliti make so much out of absolutely nothing. All I know is, there’s nothing here. Move along.
Dammit, I was so hoping that Venusian scorpions were a thing.