Signs of Life Detected on Venus.

Using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, astronomers have made an incredibly exciting discovery. This could easily be the biggest scientific news of 2020!

A 3 dimensional diagram of Phosphorous (III) Hydride, also known as Phosphine. Image Credit: ChemTube3D

The biomolecule phosphine (PH3) has been detected in the atmosphere of Venus. Though biochemicals have technically been found on the planet before, this find is special since this chemical is, on rocky planets, created either naturally by microorganisms, or artificially within labs. The presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of the hot planet has monumental implications. Dr. Janusz Petkowski of MIT is quoted as saying “If this is not life, then our understanding of rocky planets is severely lacking.”, meaning either there are extremophile microorganisms floating around in Venus’s atmosphere, or our understanding of rocky planets is deeply flawed and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

A view of the volcanic planet’s atmosphere previously thought to be completely inhospitable. Image Credit: NASA

Traditionally, Venus is considered to not be within the “goldilocks zone” of our star system, though this find may prove that there are more hospitable layers of the planet’s atmosphere in which the existence of life is plausible. The team of astronomers behind this discovery now waits to procure more time with the telescope in order to further investigate where these phosphine traces are coming from within the planet.

A photographic example of airborne anaerobic infectious bacteria here on Earth: Clostridium difficile. Image Credit: Artis Micropia

If this is life, it would be in the form of anaerobic airborne microscopic organisms some 35 miles above the notoriously inhospitable surface of the planet, and it would prove that in the search for extraterrestrial life, it is imperative to entertain even the most far-flung possibilities.

 

  • J.S. Greaves et al. Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. Nat Astron, published online September 14, 2020; doi: 10.1038/s41550-020-1174-4

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