The groundbreaking discovery promises to shake up the hunt for alien life, shifting astronomers’ attention to the second planet from the Sun. In a study published today in Nature Astronomy, a collaboration of scientists has presented evidence of an extremely rare gas in Venus’ atmosphere. The gas is a noxious and flammable compound known as phosphine.
Here on Earth, the gas is predominantly created through industrial processes and bacterial activity.
As such, the latest discovery might just be the evidence needed to prove we are not alone in the universe.
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Dr David Clements, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London who took part in the study, tweeted: “We found the gas phosphine in the upper atmosphere.
“There is no known way this can be produced by normal chemical processes by lightning, volcanoes or asteroid impact on Venus.
“Life can and does produce it on Earth. So we may have found evidence for unusual chemistry or maybe life.”
What does the phosphine discovery mean? Have we found evidence of life?
The phosphine molecule has been dubbed a “biosignature” of life as it is not produced through non-biological means.
Last year, for instance, US astrobiologists announced detecting the foul-smelling gas on planets beyond Earth could be a good indicator of alien life.
In their study, the researchers noted: “Phosphine is a promising biosignature gas, as it has no known abiotic false positives on terrestrial planets from any source that could generate the high fluxes required for detection.”
However, although the discovery of phosphine on Venus is promising, it does not equate the discovery of alien life just yet.
The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive
Dr Clara Sousa Silva, Massachusetts Institutes of Technology
Venus is an incredibly inhospitable world with the highest surface temperatures among the planets.
The planet is enveloped in a thick atmosphere of toxic clouds and gasses that are incredibly hot and thick.
According to the US space agency NASA, any attempt to breathe on Venus would be futile – the atmospheric pressure would crush you.
NASA said: “The surface of Venus is not where you’d like to be, with temperatures that can melt lead, an atmosphere so thick it would crush you, and clouds of sulfuric acid that smell like rotten eggs to top it off.”
Because of these hellish conditions, scientists have long pondered the possibility of microbes living in the upper reaches of the planet’s toxic atmosphere.
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Dr Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology (MIT) said: “The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive.
“On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about five percent of acid in their environment—but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”
So the scientists are cautious about the initial findings and more work is needed to better understand them.
The discovery was made possible thanks to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.
Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, who led the study, said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments.
“I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms.
“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock.”
Before any conclusive statement about life on Venus is made, the astronomers will have to spend more time peering through their telescope.
It will also, most likely, take a robotic expedition to the planet’s atmosphere to conduct a thorough analysis of what is going on the scorching planet.
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