Scientists find possible life on Venus

Morning star: Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky, often visible in broad daylight.© NASA

Is there life on our neighbouring planet? A gas detected floating in the clouds above Venus could hold the key to extra-terrestrial life quite unlike anything we have ever imagined.

Venus is not at the top of the list when thinking of life elsewhere in our Solar System. Indeed, compared to Earth, it’s hellish – a barren wasteland of scorching heat and thick clouds filled with sulphuric acid.

But traces of a pungent gas called phosphine wafting through the clouds could be proof of extra-terrestrial life, according to a study published this week.

As far as we know, on rocky planets such as Earth, phosphine can only be made by life, often produced in swamps and even animals’ innards.

“Finding a gas like this on Venus is really exciting because of the possibility that it could also have been produced by life, as on Earth”, explained Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, one of the scientists from the team.

When they first spotted the phosphine back in 2017, the team thought they had made an error. But in 2019, they confirmed the discovery with the Alma telescope in Chile.

They have now published their data and are appealing to others for suggestions about how the gas could have formed. Individuals from around the world are already contributing. Planetary scientist Sara Seager has suggested a whole life cycle of Venusian microbes.

But Charles Cockell from Edinburgh University warns that a biological explanation should always be a “last resort”.

Should we be optimistic about finding alien life?

Anybody there?

Probably not, say some. The probability that anything could live in the sulphur-heavy clouds above Venus is low. The phosphine is most likely a product of some unknown natural reaction we have yet to discover.

Let’s not give up, say others. We should be hopeful about finding other life in our universe. This discovery suggests that it may be closer than we think to finding life, and provides us with new ideas about where to look.

You Decide

  1. Will scientists ever find intelligent civilisations on other planets?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of our solar system. Find a fact about each planet and add them to your diagram.

Some People Say...

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008), British science-fiction writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that alien life exists on other planets. While it is possible that we may be alone in the universe, most astrobiologists consider this highly unlikely. There are an estimated six billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, and there may be as many as two trillion galaxies in the universe. To be considered Earth-like, a planet must by rocky and orbit a Sun-like star at a habitable distance that can host liquid water and potentially life.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is why – if there are a huge number of potentially inhabited planets – we have seen no signs of aliens before. The question is known as the Fermi Paradox after the physicist who first post it. Those who think it is because the aliens cannot make contact ware called Cantians (as in the word “can’t”). Those who believe they simply choose not to are called Wontians (as in the word “won’t”).

Word Watch

Sulphuric acid
A mineral acid composed of sulphur, oxygen and hydrogen. The clouds above Venus contain around 75% sulphuric acid, which is corrosive and poisonous to any living being from Earth.
Temperate
A climate with tepid temperatures comfortable for life. In the clouds above the surface, temperatures range between -1 and 90°C, a far more habitable climate than the scorching temperatures on land.
Chemical weapon
The gas is extremely poisonous and was released by armies during the war to attack the enemy. It was responsible for around 85,000 deaths.
Fumigant
A chemical that produces fumes to disinfect or purify an area. In agriculture, fumigants are used for pest control.
Spotted
Scientists detected the gas while observing the planet with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope, the largest astronomical telescope in the world.
Alma
A powerful telescope designed to observe molecular gas and dust, and therefore a brilliant tool for studying the atmosphere on Venus from a distance.
Venusian
In science fiction, a person or being that lives on Venus. It is used to describe anything native to the planet.

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