Astronomers have for some time assumed that the best places to hunt supernatural life in our solar system are on the moons or Mars of Jupiter and Saturn. But new research suggests that we should also look at our second planetary neighbor.
A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Astronomy shows that Venus’ clouds contain traces of phosphine: a highly flammable, toxic and corrosive gas also found on Earth. On Earth, phosphine is produced either in laboratories or by anaerobic bacteria. So phosphine on Venus is most likely thought to have come from a living organism.
The authors of the study were not able to verify the origin of phosphine, but they did not investigate any other possible sources, such as volcanic activity on Venus, that could explain the amount of gas they found.
Co-author of the new study, Janus Petkowski, said, “We actually went through all the possible paths that could have produced phosphine on a rocky planet.” “If it is not life, then our understanding of rocky planets is severely lacking.”
Mysterious origin of phosphine
Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system. Its average surface temperature is sufficient for blistering 880 ° F (471 ° C) – lead melting.
This, combined with the planet’s carbon-dioxide-filled atmosphere, would make Venus quite unfit for life.
But some researchers, including the famous astronomer Carl Sagan, have suggested that although the Venus surface may not be habitable, the bands of clouds that surround the planet can host microbes.
The new discovery lends more credibility to Sagan’s idea.
Phosphine gas scientists found that Venus’s cloud is in the upper reaches of the deck, 39 miles above the surface. The gas, PH3, consists of phosphorus and hydrogen atoms linked together.
Petkowski’s team thanked Venus from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Observatory in Chile. Based on that data, they calculated that Venus’ clouds contained about 20 parts per phosphine gas.
The scientist, however, did not stop there. He then attempted to model how phosphine could accumulate in the cloud deck of Venus.
Previously he modeled geological and chemical scenarios, such as moving tectonic plates, volcanic activity, or meteor strikes. They also tested whether chemical processes or intense lightning in the clouds could produce gases.
Neither of those calculations contained the amount of phosphine found by him.
“If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within Venus’s upper atmosphere, it must be generated by a process not previously considered plausible for Venus conditions. It may be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life. Could, ”the study authors wrote.
Other scientists say further observations are needed to confirm the new findings.
Astrobiologist Durk Schulz-Makuch, who was not involved in the study, told National Geographic that a biological explanation for phosphine is still possible, as are the yet undiscovered geologic or light-induced chemical reactions.
“Venus is basically still an alien planet,” Schultz-Makuch said. “There are a lot of things we don’t understand.”
The surface and atmosphere of Venus are very different
The positions on the surface of Venus are opposite in its environment.
“The surface of the planet is very corrosive,” said Gustavo Costa, a chemist and a scientist and scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, First Business Insider, “It’s like hell on Earth.”
Coast said the pressure on the surface of Venus would feel like being 3,000 feet (914 m) under water.
But high in the planet’s atmosphere, temperatures range from 90 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (30 to 70 degrees Celsius), about 40 miles above the surface. Pressures are equal to sea-level on Earth.
This is part of the environment where Petkowski’s team found phosphine.
“This phosphine signal is fully deployed where others have speculated that the area may be habitable,” Petkowski told MIT News.
Scientists have previously suggested that Venus clouds may be habitable
In the 1960s, Carl Sagan wrote two papers discussing the possibility of life on Venus. They concluded that the planet’s surface is, on average, too hot for proteins and biological processes.
“The overall possibility of life on the surface of Venus remains bleak,” Sagan wrote.
But he said that “while the position of Venus’s surface embodies the life there, the Venus clouds are a different story altogether.”
In 1967, Sagan and Harold Morowitz, a molecular biologist at Yale, stated that Venus’ clouds could contain a vibrant layer, where the air would be able to keep germs apart. He also did math work for an organism like a balloon, such as a “float bladder” filled with hydrogen that could keep it alive.
In the decades since then, astronomers have continued to investigate this possibility. A study published in 2018 suggested that temperate Venusian clouds can disturb extremes: germs that can heat environments that are extremely hot, acidic, or toxic.
“On Earth, we know that life can thrive under very acidic conditions, feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid,” co-author of the study Rakesh Mogul said in a press release.
Mogul’s team mentions them as living organisms that have been found in our own environments 25 miles above the Earth’s surface.
There is no reason why similar microorganisms do not thrive on other planets.
“Venus could be an exciting new chapter in astronomy exploration,” Mogul said in 2018.
Future missions of Venus can tell us more about its clouds
To see clearly inside Venus’s clouds, astronomers need to send an investigation.
NASA has partially researched conceptual missions to Venus for decades, but the agency has not embarked on a dedicated mission to the planet since 1989. Europe and Japan, meanwhile, orbit spacecraft around Venus in 2006 and 2015, respectively, but were not equipped to look for signs of life.
Peter Beck, CEO of private launch company Rocket Lab, has said he wants to change it. On August 31, the company launched its first Photon spacecraft, which is designed to take the technology into space.
Beck said that the photon may eventually reach Venus, Mars and the Moon.
“I’m madly in love with Venus,” Beck said in an August video. “We’re going to learn a lot on the way there, and we’re going to have a crack to see what we can find in that atmospheric area. Who else knows? You can hit the jackpot.”