While most scientists were busy looking at 2 cosmic neighbors, it was the third neighbor of our planet who decided to pull a fast one on us! When it comes to extraterrestrial life, the Moon and Mars have topped the list of interests. But the recent detection of a strange gas in the clouds of Venus might be a sign of active life on the planet.
This rocky planet has always seemed quite an improbable one for sustaining any life form. But phosphine gas in its clouds tells otherwise. The scientists who were researching the planet have stated that phosphine is a toxic gas that is produced by microorganisms on Earth. Currently, there are no other known methods of producing phosphine. Clara Sousa-Silva is a molecular astrophysicist at MIT. As one of the co-authors of this paper, she said, “As crazy as it might sound, our most plausible explanation is life.” One thing we need to be careful about is that the discovery of this gas in the clouds of Venus is not a direct proof of life on the planet. It could also mean that there are other ways of producing the gas that we are not yet familiar with.
Strange gas in the clouds of Venus: Are we truly alone?
This hot neighbor of ours is NASA’s biggest interest now when it comes to alien life. While a rover is working on Mars to find dead and preserved microbes, they will only tell the planet’s history. If a spacecraft sent to Venus confirms the existence of life, it will be in the present times. Two planets in our solar system sustaining life at the same time!
But how did phosphine become an indicator of life? An astronomer from Cardiff University, Jane Greaves, had found in scientific papers that phosphine is one of the biosignatures of Earth. That means, if you were an alien scientist, looking at Earth for signs of life, the presence of phosphine would be a sure indicator.
Greaves wanted to see if this theory holds for other planets too. So she decided to study Venus from a Hawaii-based ground telescope just for a few hours. When Greaves found the unmistakable light pattern of the gas in the clouds of Venus, she immediately contacted Sousa-Silva.
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While the surface temperature of Venus is around 460 degrees Celsius, the atmosphere has more hospitable temperatures. This is where the traces of phosphine were found. But even then, the sulfuric acid in the clouds would dissolve the gas quickly. So the only explanation left was that something or someone was actively producing the gas in the clouds of Venus to replace the diluted portions.
Room for Doubt
As of now, only the storms in Saturn and Jupiter have shown traces of this gas, outside Earth. Sousa-Silva carried out experiments to create extreme conditions that are in line with Venus’ activities to see if the gas could be found. The negligible amount produced would be impossible to detect from Earth. So the last remaining option on the list is that active life forms are producing the gas at this moment. Sousa-Silva is still skeptical and has said, “I invite them to come and prove me wrong because we’re at the end of our expertise.”
Scientists who were not associated with the study also seem to agree with the findings. Because there are no other ways of producing this gas. In 1967, Carl Sagan and Harold Morowitz had claimed that Venus was once a watery world with habitable oceans. Heat-trapping gases swelled and the water quickly evaporated. Life-forms might have adapted to life in the clouds while tolerating the sulphuric acid to survive.
Scientists across the globe are extremely excited about this detection of the phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus. It would either lead to finding life on the planet or would show us a new method of producing the gas. But the possibility of life in a neighbor we have often overlooked might open new realms of exploration.
To be honest, finding alien life this year is quite in line with the stuff 2020 has thrown our way. Would you be really surprised to see tiny and cute Venusian aliens waving back at us?
Featured image: JAXA / ISAS / AKATSUKI PROJECT TEAM