Venus may hold the key to discovering extra-terrestrial life

NASA is set to investigate a recent discovery showing possible signs of microbial life in the clouds of Venus.

Researchers have discovered the presence of a rare and toxic gas called phosphine floating around the atmosphere of Venus. Known to biologists as one of the strongest indicators – or ‘biosignatures’ – of microbial life, this breakthrough suggests we may have found the first signs of life beyond Earth… and not too far beyond either.

The closest of our planetary neighbours is dubbed the ‘Hell Planet’ for a reason. Temperatures on Venus’ surface are known to exceed 470 degrees, pressures of 9.3 MPa would be high enough to crush any human visitor instantly, and droplets of sulfuric acid way off the PH scale coat the planet in a noxious fog. However, it’s within a temperate cloud 53km above ground ranging between 20 and 37 degrees that the molecule phosphine has been found.

On Earth, this unstable gas can be located in swamps and marshlands where it is thought to be produced by harmful microbes and is distinguishable by its lingering odor of garlic and dead fish. Outside of its core habitat, phosphine is also found in certain animal droppings and can even be manufactured artificially to create biological weapons. In the main though, it is natural biproduct left behind by the breakdown of organic matter, and crucially was thought to be synonymous with Earth alone.

The sample swirling within the Venusian clouds was comparable to a ‘few tablespoons in an Olympic sized swimming pool’ according to David Clements, an astrophysicist at the Imperial College of London and part of the team that made the almighty discovery.

The initial detection was picked up as an anomaly by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii through infrared and microwave wavelengths, and the findings were quickly substantiated by the ALMA, an array of radio telescopes in the desert of Northern Chile. Despite all this state-of-the-art technology, when it comes to speculating on how or why phosphine ended up there, experts are almost as clueless as you or I.

‘We’re really left with two possibilities,’ said William Bains of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ‘The first is that there is some completely known, exotic, and therefore very exciting chemistry going in the clouds of Venus that nobody has speculated on before. Or – and this is the more exciting one – the phosphine is being created by life.’

Thankfully, with astronomers across the globe twitching at the prospect of answering one of the universe’s most pertinent questions, we may not have to wait too long to glean some clarity from the situation. To this point, discovery expeditions to Venus had struggled to secure funding, with experts pointing to the planet’s volatile landscape as a serious hinderance and Mars has become the key subject for our otherworldly research.

However, this week’s astronomical breakthrough arrived in conjunction with a new industry proposal designed to steer planetary science missions and research for the next decade. On that front, Venus is sure to steal the Red Planet’s thunder in the years ahead.

NASA is already working out the logistics of kickstarting an expedition to Venus before summer 2026. Sending a probe directly into the planet’s atmosphere will allow analysts to acquire the very first high-precision measurements of the phosphine in question, as well as a detailed UV map of the planet’s ancient geology. The mission, dubbed ‘DAVINCI’ is now being drafted for an official proposal in 2021.

As revered astronomer Carl Sagan once said: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Right now, the evidence is promising, but we have some digging to do.

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