“We may not know just how extraordinary without going back to Venus.”, Sarah Stewart Johnson, a planetary scientist and head of the Johnson Biosignatures Lab at Georgetown University who was not involved in the work, said, “There’s been a lot of buzz about phosphine as a biosignature gas for exoplanets recently,” referring to the search for life on worlds that orbit other stars. Many planetary scientists, including Carl Sagan and Harold Morowitz, who proposed the idea 53 years ago, have hypothesized life may exist there. It is also extremely poisonous. Life on Venus? “I’m not skeptical, I’m hesitant,” said Justin Filiberto, a planetary geochemist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston who specializes in Venus and Mars and isn’t part of the study team. They searched for phosphine, which is three hydrogen atoms and a phosphorous atom. After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source. You must be over the age of 13. We use cookies and similar technologies to optimise your experience when using this site and to help tailor our digital advertising on third party sites. When the droplets fall, the potential life probably dries out and could then get picked up in another drop and reanimate, they said. Other planetary scientists counter that a non-biological origin cannot be ruled out. Discover more about the natural world beyond Earth's stratosphere. “What we find circumstantially also makes complete sense with what we know thermodynamically,” she said. So close, so similar and very mysterious, the planet is surprising scientists with a chemical signature spotted in its clouds. Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venutian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Astronomy. One of the chemicals was phosphine. In this narrative, life emerged on Earth, Venus and Mars back when all three worlds were flush with water. Biologists don't yet know the exact biochemical path that produces the gas, even here on Earth. After three astronomers met in a bar in Hawaii, they decided to look that way at the closest planet to Earth: Venus. a planetary scientist and head of the Johnson Biosignatures Lab at Georgetown University, the oxygen-rich environment that later developed, Mars is currently ringed by orbiters and prowled by NASA rovers, declined to fund a number of Venus missions. Scientists have detected phosphine on Venus. (2020) ... have found life. Bacteria live in the liquid water droplets, which are then rained back down on Earth. But, just like an increasing number of planetary bodies, Venus is proving to be an exciting place of discovery.”. They also ruled out things like lightening and meteorites. Hot enough to melt metal and with clouds full of acid, any life that could survive in the atmosphere of Venus would have to be capable of enduring extremes. View our Cookie Policy and our new Privacy notice. … Not a single process we looked at could produce phosphine in high enough quantities to explain our team’s findings.”. Researchers have been using telescopes to look for evidence of phosphine in Venus's clouds since 2016. David Grinspoon, a Washington-based astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute who wrote a 1997 book suggesting Venus could harbor life, said the finding “almost seems too good to be true.”, “I’m excited, but I’m also cautious,” Grinspoon said. The researchers found that phosphine exists in Venus’ clouds at a small concentration of twenty molecules in every billion. “I got intrigued by the idea of looking for phosphine, because phosphorus might be a bit of a sort of go-no-go for life,” Dr. Greaves said. Many scientists think that Venus was once covered in water and possessed an atmosphere where life as we know it could have flourished. “What we’ve done is rule out all other sources of phosphine other than life,” Dr. Bains said. In their own paper, he noted, the researchers wrote that “the detection of phosphine is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry.”, A similar note of caution was voiced by James Kasting, a geoscientist and expert on planetary habitability at Pennsylvania State University, who said, “The model atmospheric composition that they show is, at best, incomplete.”. But with powerful telescopes, they have detected a chemical — phosphine — in the thick Venus atmosphere. Earth has life in its clouds too, swept up from the surface. Life on Venus? Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, set out in June 2017 to test that hypothesis using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, looking for signs of various molecules on Venus. The detection of a gas in the planet’s atmosphere could turn scientists’ gaze to a planet long overlooked in the search for extraterrestrial life. “Venus is hell. The immense heat and pressures can jam the phosphorus and hydrogen atoms together to form the molecule. On such worlds, “as far as we can tell, only life can make phosphine,” Dr. Sousa-Silva said. The team painstakingly measured levels of phosphine in the clouds, and ruled out any alternative reasons for its presence. 10.00-17.50 (last entry 17.00). “How cool to find it on Venus.”, She added: “Venus has been ignored by NASA for so long. A report released on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, says astronomers have found a potential signal of life high in the atmosphere of our nearest neighboring planet. “The finding itself is astonishing,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University who was not involved in the research. “The light is constantly breaking the phosphine down, so you have to continuously replenish it,” said William Bains, a biochemist at M.I.T. Phosphine gas has been found in the clouds of Venus that could have been created by microbes. The U.S. space agency is considering two possible Venus missions. She says, 'It's exciting to think that our sister world, sitting right on the edge of the solar systems' habitable zone, could have conditions suitable for life. It is usually found in oxygen-free environments, where only certain types of bacteria survive. Phosphine is shaped like a pyramid with three atoms of hydrogen bonded to a single atom of phosphorus. On the TV show “Breaking Bad,” the main character, Walter White, makes it to kill two rivals. But the coronavirus pandemic and Venus’s limited time above the horizon interfered with their ability to gather more evidence, leaving many questions unanswered. On Earth, phosphine is produced by microbes, but we don't know for sure which organisms give it off. Well… maybe not as crazy as it first sounds. DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-1174-4 Journal information: Nature Astronomy This research was completed by an international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University. It is found in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn too, but it shouldn't exist on Venus because of the planet's chemical makeup. 'However as with all scientific discoveries in astrobiology we will need to look much more closely at the different ways phosphine can be created without life, to be able to conclusively say that this discovery is life. It means there is a chance that we've found signs of living organisms in the clouds of our neighbouring planet. Volcanoes can produce phosphine, but only miniscule amounts - far less than the quantities detected by the scientists. “Many scientists would not have guessed that Venus would be a significant part of this discussion. and one of the co-authors of the papers. (The gas was produced for use as chemical warfare agent in World War I.) Growing up in the Apollo era of the seventies, Prof Sara Russell fantasised about working on space missions. But on smaller, rocky planets like Earth and Venus, the researchers say, there is not enough energy to produce copious amounts of phosphine in the same way. Prof Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author on the new study, was careful to emphasise that this is not yet conclusive proof of life. In that setting, Dr. Sousa-Silva said, life is not necessary to form phosphine. By studying how organisms survive and thrive on Earth, scientists have identified key ingredients that appear to be essential for life. As to how these microbes got there, the best guess, she said, is that they originated on the surface when Venus had oceans as late as 700 million years ago, but they were forced into the skies when the planet dried up. It is hardly a place that makes visiting or research easy, although that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. “Despite prior speculation (mostly by the same authors), this can hardly be taken as a biosignature,” Gerald Joyce, a biologist at the Salk Institute in California who has experimented with creating life in the lab, said in an email. Image via Seager et al. And nobody knows whether the microbes, if real, are based on DNA like us, or something entirely different. Of all those attempts, only two managed to directly capture images of the planet’s surface. There was life here then, even an entire biosphere that did not survive in the oxygen-rich environment that later developed. It contains droplets with tiny amounts of water but mostly sulfuric acid that is a billion times more acidic than what’s found on Earth. He said that although he was “skeptical of it being life, I don’t have a better explanation for what it is.”. Volcanic activity and lightning on Venus would not be sufficient to add more of this constantly disappearing phosphine, according to the researchers’ models. However, Venus's atmosphere is very harsh so it is difficult to directly compare it to Earth. Future missions to the planet are still mere concepts. She commented, 'The finding of a compound such as phosphine that is associated with microbial life on Earth is exciting news. Life on Venus? They said it doesn’t satisfy the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967.