Sep 14, 2020

Possible Sign of life On Venus Stirs Up Heated Debate

“Something weird is happening” in the clouds of the planet next door—but some experts are raising doubts about the quality of the data.

SOMETHING DEADLY MIGHT be wafting through the clouds shrouding Venus—a smelly, flammable gas called phosphine that annihilates life-forms reliant on oxygen for survival. Ironically, though, the scientists who today announced sightings of this noxious gas in the Venusian atmosphere say it could be tantalizing—if controversial—evidence of life on the planet next door.
As far as we know, on rocky planets such as Venus and Earth, phosphine can only be made by life—whether human or microbe. Used as a chemical weapon during World War I, phosphine is still manufactured as an agricultural fumigant, is used in the semiconductor industry, and is a nasty byproduct of meth labs. But phosphine is also made naturally by some species of anaerobic bacteria—organisms that live in the oxygen-starved environments of landfills, marshlands, and even animal guts.
Earlier this year, researchers surmised that finding the chemical on other terrestrial planets could indicate the presence of alien metabolisms, and they suggested aiming the sharpest telescopes of the future at faraway exoplanets to probe their atmospheres for signs of the gas.
Now, we may have found signs of phosphine on the planet next door, astronomers report in the journal Nature Astronomy.
“I immediately freaked out, of course. I presumed it was a mistake, but I very much wanted it to not be a mistake,” says study co-author Clara Sousa-Silva, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who initially identified phosphine as a potential biosignature.molecule before it can accumulate to the observed amounts. But it’s too early to conclude that life exists beyond Earth’s shores. Scientists caution that the detection itself needs to be verified, as the phosphine fingerprint described in the study could be a false signal introduced by the telescopes or by data processing.
“It’s tremendously exciting, and we have a sort of obligatory response of first questioning whether the result is real,” says David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute. “When somebody comes up with an extraordinary observation that hasn’t been made before, you wonder if they could have done something wrong.”
But if phosphine really is floating through the Venusian cloud deck, its presence suggests one of two intriguing possibilities: that alien life-forms are deftly linking together phosphorus and hydrogen atoms, or that some completely unanticipated chemistry is crafting phosphine in the absence of life.

Life on a “blasted hellhole”

Venus, the second world from the sun, has long been considered Earth’s twin. It’s about the same size as our home planet, with similar gravity and composition. For centuries, hopeful humans thought its surface might be covered in oceans, lush vegetation, and verdant ecosystems, providing a second oasis for life in the solar system
Then reality intruded.
Early science observations of the planet next door revealed that it is a menace of a world that could kill Earthlings in multiple ways. Its surface can reach a sweltering 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Tucked beneath as many as 65 miles of cloud and haze, those roasted rocks are smothered by a bone-crushing amount of pressure, more than 90 times what’s felt on Earth’s surface. Plus, the planet’s atmosphere is primarily suffocating carbon dioxide populated by sulfuric acid clouds.
Even so, scientists have considered the possibility that life might exist in the Venusian cloud deck for nearly 60 years, perhaps thriving where conditions are a bit friendlier.
“While the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether,” Carl Sagan and Harold Morowitz wrote in the journal Nature back in 1967.
Despite the acid, the clouds carry the basic ingredients for life as we know it: sunlight, water, and organic molecules. And near the middle of the cloud layer, temperatures and pressures are rather Earthlike. “It’s shirt-sleeve weather, with all these tasty things to eat,” says Martha Gilmore, a Wesleyan University planetary scientist and leader of a proposed mission to Venus, referring to molecules in the planet’s air that microbes could metabolize.
Early observations of the planet revealed that parts of its atmosphere absorb more ultraviolet light than expected, an anomaly that scientists hypothesized could be the work of aerial microbes. While the phenomenon is more likely due to the presence of sulfur-containing compounds, a handful of scientists have since elaborated on the possibility of airborne Venusians, laying out scenarios in which microbes might metabolize sulfur compounds, stay afloat among the ever-present clouds, and even develop life cycles enabled by periods of dormancy at varying altitudes.
“When I first started talking about it, there was a lot of resistance, mostly because it’s such a harshly acidic environment,” says Grinspoon, who has pushed the idea of cloud-borne life on Venus since the mid-1990s.VENUS 101

Named after the ancient Roman goddess of beauty, Venus is known for its exceptional brightness. Find out about the volcanoes that dot Venus's surface, the storms that rage in its atmosphere, and the surprising feature that makes Venus outshine every planet or star in the night sky.

But everything we’ve learned about life on Earth suggests that it will move into every available nook and cranny. Here, we find microbes thriving in hostile, corrosive environments such as hot springs and volcanic fields. We also know that microbes regularly hitch a ride on cloud particles, and scientists have found organisms flying more than six miles above the Caribbean. Clouds are ephemeral on Earth, so it’s unlikely that they support permanent ecosystems, but on Venus, cloudy days are in the forecast for millions or even billions of years.The tentative detection of phosphine is likely to fuel calls for a return to Venus—a trip that some say is long overdue, given that the last time NASA sent a probe to the planet was in 1989. Schulze-Makuch says it’s completely within the realm of possibility to do an atmospheric sample-return mission, sending a spacecraft to swoop through the clouds and gather gas and particles to bring back to Earth.
Several proposed missions are moving through review, including an elaborate, multi-spacecraft concept led by Gilmore of Wesleyan University, which will be evaluated by the planetary science community as it sets its priorities for the next decade of solar system exploration. Gilmore’s concept includes several orbiters and a balloon that would closely study the Venusian atmosphere and look for signs of life.
On the more immediate horizon, a smaller mission to study the deep atmosphere of Venus, named DAVINCI+, is one of the four finalists in NASA’s Discovery program competition. The next mission selection is scheduled to take place in 2021.
“Venus is such a complex, amazing system, and we don’t understand it. And it’s another Earth. It probably had an ocean for billions of years, and it’s right there. It’s just a matter of going,” Gilmore says. “We have the technology right now to go into the atmosphere of Venus. It can be done.”

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