There was quite a bit of buzz on the interwebs yesterday after some news leaked out from the British Royal Astronomical Society. (Not a source for leaks you normally see here.) The results of a study of the upper atmosphere of the planet Venus have produced some startling findings that the scientists involved in the project plan to announce later today. The long and the short of it is that they’ve discovered significant amounts of phosphine in the Venusian upper atmosphere. This basic chemical compound composed of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms shouldn’t be found in large amounts in the atmosphere of Venus for one simple reason. It’s most commonly (though not uniquely) produced as a result of the breakdown of organic matter. In other words… life. Could something actually be alive in the atmosphere of Venus? A brief explanation from astrobiology.com follows.
[A]ccording to several sources knowledgeable with the details of the announcement phosphine has been discovered in the atmosphere of Venus. Its presence suggests – suggests – some strange chemistry going on since phosphine is something you’d only expect to see if life (as we know it) was involved.
The presence of phosphine is seen by many astrobiologists as a “biosignature” i.e. an indicator of the possible presence of life. The detection was made by the Atacama (ALMA) array located in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope located in Hawaii. The research team includes members from the University of Manchester, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cardiff University. A paper will appear in the 14 September issue of Nature Astronomy.
Both MIT and Cardiff University seem to be pretty excited about this. They’ve been studying the data for a while now, trying to find some non-biological source that might account for the levels of phosphine being observed and they’re drawing a blank. And if we eliminate the other potential sources, the only thing lefts appears to be some form of life in Venus’ upper atmosphere.
In this leaked video, astrobiologist Janusz Petkowski from MIT explains how they seem fairly convinced we’re on to something and they don’t have an explanation (yet) aside from life.
So this is crazy, right? Life on Venus? Well… maybe not as crazy as it first sounds. A popular and plausible theory among astrophysicists holds that a couple of billion years ago, Venus looked a lot like Earth did in its formative stages. It may have had liquid water and conditions suitable for life for several billion years until roughly 750 million years ago when everything went to literal hell in a handbasket. So perhaps life did arise there and some remnant of Venusian biology is floating around in the planet’s upper atmosphere, which is actually quite hospitable compared to conditions on the surface. It’s full of water vapor and other random particulates and the temperature is pleasantly warm far above the Venusian surface.
But with that said, you’re asking the Venusians to do some seriously heavy lifting. When I said things went to literal hell there, I wasn’t exaggerating. The Soviet Union landed dozens of probes on Venus between 1967 and 1983, sending back video and environmental data. What they found was a planet with surface temperatures of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit, a partially molten surface and a nearly constant condition of rainfall. Except the “rain” isn’t water. It’s sulfuric acid.
At some point, the planet may have been habitable, but it spiraled into an out-of-control greenhouse effect that changed it utterly. (We don’t know why that happened, but for now, I’ll just assume that the Venusian fracking program was insufficiently regulated by their global government.) Could some microbes have found a way to survive in the more pleasant conditions found in the upper atmosphere for all of this time? Perhaps.
But there is one other possible explanation to consider. Remember those Soviet probes I mentioned above? Couldn’t it be possible that some Earth microbes hitched a ride on one or more of them, peeled off as the probe entered the atmosphere, and basically seeded the clouds with a starter kit for life? In order to find out, I’m guessing that we’d have to have a probe capable of collecting and returning some samples and examine them. If they have the same DNA as the microbial beasties found on the Earth, we might have our answer. But if they are something almost entirely different, then the case could be made for a true Venusian Genesis, and wouldn’t that spur some interesting conversations? Of course, if you happen to believe in the panspermia hypothesis (as I do) then the galaxy is probably lousy with life and it all shares some common ancestor, modified through evolution to fit the environment where it lands.
The official announcement from the British Astronomical society will be made later this morning on their Facebook page. Stay tuned.
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