Atmospheric Gas Study Finds Venus May be Hiding Life

Featured Image: A surface view of Venus from Venera 9. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

When it comes to life in the solar system, human beings only understand how life has developed on Earth. Beyond a microorganisms called H. salminicola, we know of no known truly anaerobic (non-oxygen needing) life. The search for life in the solar system has therefore focused mainly on those places we suspect water to exist , Mars, Europa, and Enceladus. However, some scientists believe that the acidic atmosphere of Venus, Earth’s sister planet, might be an ideal habitat for a type of molecules called acidophiles, which thrive in highly acidic environments.

Astrobiologists right now. (Image credit: Graham Lau via Twitter @cosmobiologist)

Today (September 14, 2020) a team led by Jane S. Greaves of the Royal Astronomical Society of the UK and composed of scientists from Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kyoto Sangyo University have announced an interesting and potentially breakthrough scientific discovery about Venus. Using data from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Atacama, Chile the team has observed the presence of the gas phosphene in the cloud deck above Venus. Phosphene has recently been determined to be a potential indicator for life, as there are few known abiotic processes which create it.

Phosphine is a molecule of phosphorus and hydrogen (PH4) that is typically the result of the decomposition of organic compounds containing phosphate, but can occur in abiotic processes of geochemistry and photochemistry. However, the scientists have determined that the amounts of phosphine detected would rule out purely abiotic processes.

This is truly exciting news for astrobiologists. While Venus at ground level is described as a veritable hell with an average temperature of 872 F (467 C), those temperatures lessen as the readings are taken higher in the atmosphere. Some scientists held onto this fact as hope that there could be some microorganisms in the Venusian atmosphere.

Venus is only 90 days away from Earth during the best launch windows, allowing for easier access to scientific instruments than planets which are farther away from the Sun than Earth. Russia, the United States, Japan, and ESA have all sent probes to study Venus, with Russia sending the majority of the science missions, including several successful landers in the Venera series. The last Venus science mission flown was Akatsuki in 2010, which was launched by JAXA and missed its first orbital insertion attempt in December of 2010. It then orbited the Sun for five years before engineers were able to successfully attempt another Venusian orbital insertion in December 2015.

While this is an exciting time for Venusian science and astrobiology, it is wise to look at these results with some caution. While the scientists have based all assumptions on what humanity understands of life, it is clear that what we do not know and understand can make us look like fools. This excessive phosphine may be attributed to life, but that will require extensive amounts of research and in situ data. The drop in the cost of launch which SpaceX and Rocket Labs are overseeing will be a boon to Venusian science as teams develop new experiments which will require their own launchers. Here’s looking forward to more data and more insight in the future.

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