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A group of astronomers have found potential signs of life in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus. There are indications that microbes living in the sulfuric acid clouds of the hot planet may be working.
Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have detected chemical traces of phosphine in the dense clouds of Venus. This poisonous gas on Earth is associated with life, according to a study published today in the journal Astronomy of Nature.
Several outside experts, as well as the study’s authors, agree that it is promising, but not the first evidence of life on another planet. They say the discovery so far does not meet the principle of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” put forward by Carl Sagan, who himself speculated that life may have been in the clouds of Venus in 1967.
“This is not crucial evidence,” said study co-author astrophysicist David Clementes. “There is not even a remnant of gunpowder in the hands of the main suspect, but there is something in the air that might suggest something.”
In astronomers searching for life on other planets outside the solar system, the main method is to look for chemical traces that can only occur as a result of biological processes. Three astronomers in Hawaii have decided to look for such traces on the nearest planet to Earth: Venus. They searched for traces of phosphine and found them.
On Earth, phosphine is formed in only two ways. The first is an industrial process. Gas was produced as a chemical weapon in World War I. The second way is natural, and comes from some animals and microbes. It can be found as a residue at the bottom of some swamps, in the intestines of some animals, and in the feces of penguins.
The study’s co-author, planetary scientist Sarah Sieger, says all alternatives to phosphine have been considered and all rejected: volcanoes, small meteorites, lightning strikes …
“None of these processes is able to produce such amounts of phosphine to explain the invention,” Siger said.
Astronomers say that it is not possible to have life on the surface of Venus, because the average temperature is about 425 degrees Celsius. But in the atmosphere above the surface, the story is different.
About 50 km above the surface of Venus is a dense cloud cover, where the temperature is at room temperature.
Phosphine could have originated from some kind of microbe, probably single-celled, housed in droplets of sulfuric acid, which spend their entire lives in clouds 15 miles [15 km] deep.
Life is definitely possible, but more evidence is needed, say other scientists.
Astronomer Lisa Kaltenger says the idea that we may be witnessing a biological process is exciting, but says not enough is known about Venus to say that life is the only explanation for the presence of phosphine.
David Greenspoon, an astrobiologist whose 1997 book suggested there may be life on Venus, said the discovery seemed “too good to be true.”
“I am excited, but also cautious. “We found an encouraging signal, but now we need to move on.”
The study’s co-author, Clemens, says his head tells him he “probably has a 10% chance of making a living”, but his heart tells him “he wants the chance to be much bigger because it would be very exciting”.
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