Have scientists found strong evidence of life on the planet Venus? News under embargo until official publication on September 14 that has slipped out early suggests that is indeed the case.
The surface of Venus is a hellish landscape that no carbon-based lifeforms are likely to be able to survive – temperatures can reach almost 900 F/500 C – but there is a ‘habitable zone’ 48-60 kilometres up in the planet’s cloudy atmosphere that is similar to Earthly conditions, at least in terms of temperature and pressure. And in recent years, the discovery of extremophiles in numerous environments on Earth has brought a new understanding that life might exist in places that we previously thought wasn’t possible, such as acidic environments.
A number of astrobiologists, such as Dr David Grinspoon, have previously suggested there might be life in Venus’s clouds, pointing out there is a strange chemical signature in the planet’s atmosphere that can’t be explained: an unknown something is absorbing UV radiation (Carl Sagan and Harold Morowitz published a paper in Nature on this topic way back in 1967).
And now this new research has apparently added more strong evidence – if not proof, quite yet – of some sort of life in Venus’s clouds.
What did they find? Phosphine – a gas that is thought to only be able to be produced in the depths of very large planets like Jupiter, artificially in the lab by humans, or otherwise by certain kinds of microbes that live in oxygen-free environments.
MIT scientists first proposed less than a year ago that searching for the gas might be a good way to find evidence for life on Venus, “after spending several years running many species of phosphorous — phosphine’s essential building block — through an exhaustive, theoretical analysis of chemical pathways, under increasingly extreme scenarios, to see whether phosphorous could turn into phosphine in any abiotic way.”
Those scientists have since teamed up with researchers from the University of Manchester and Cardiff University, to study the clouds of Venus using the Atacama (ALMA) telescope array located in Chile, and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope located in Hawaii, and the results of their research will be officially published September 14 in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Unofficially, at this point ahead of the lifting of the embargo: after six months of processing the data from the observations, those results appear to be that they are convinced phosphine is present in Venus’s clouds.
The paper will no doubt be hotly debated, with many skeptics likely to look for ways to challenge the research findings (bad observations? alternative explanations for phosphine generation?) as the usual process of scientific discovery unfolds. But at the very least, the research will perhaps lead to a mission to Venus, where probes might sample the cloudy atmosphere and provide definitive proof as to whether life exists on other planets.