Scientists have detected in the harshly acidic clouds of Venus a gas called phosphine that indicates microbes may inhabit Earth’s uninhabitable neighbour.
An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extraterrestrial life.
The researchers did not discover actual life forms, but noted that on Earth phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen starved environments. The international scientific team first spotted the phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and confirmed it using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array(ALMA) radio telescope in Chile.
“I am surprised – stunned, in fact,” said astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The administrator of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, also said on Twitter that it is time to prioritise Venus, which has long been ignored owing to its hostile environment. Dr David L Clements, Reader in Astrophysics at Imperial College London, told Express UK that the discovery will shift everyone’s attention to Venus. According to him, this will prompt more scientists to find out what exactly is going on on Venus. If it is life that is releasing phosphine, then researchers will have to find out more about it. If not, it will give a better understanding of the planet and the complex chemistry it possesses.
“We have done our very best to explain this discovery without the need for a biological process. With our current knowledge of phosphine, and Venus, and geochemistry, we cannot explain the presence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus. That doesn’t mean it is life. It just means that some exotic process is producing phosphine, and our understanding of Venus needs work,” one of the researchers said.
While previous robotic spacecraft have visited Venus, a new probe may be needed to confirm life.
“Fortunately, Venus is right next door,” Sousa-Silva said. “So we can literally go and check.”