The atmosphere of Venus contains a gas that on Earth can be attributed to living organisms, scientists said on Monday, a discovery the head of NASA called “the most significant development yet” in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Conditions on the Earth’s planetary neighbor are often described as hellish, with daytime temperatures hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide.
However, a team of experts detected traces of phosphine, a flammable gas that on Earth often occurs from the breakdown of organic matter.
The team used telescopes in Hawaii and Chile’s Atacama Desert to observe Venus’ upper cloud deck, about 60km from the surface.
Writing in Nature Astronomy, the team said that the presence of phosphine did not prove the presence of life on Venus, but as the clouds swirling about its broiling surface are highly acidic, and therefore destroy phosphine very quickly, the research did show that something was creating it anew.
The researchers conducted several modeling calculations in a bid to explain the new phosphine production.
They concluded that their research provided evidence “for anomalous and unexplained chemistry” on Venus.
Lead author Jane Greaves, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said that the presence of phosphine alone was not proof of life on Venus.
“I don’t think we can say that — even if a planet was abundant in phosphorus, it might lack something else important to life — some other element, or conditions might be too hot, too dry,” she said.
Greaves added that it was the first time phosphine had been found on a rocky planet other than Earth.
The breakthrough was hailed by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who tweeted: “It’s time to prioritize Venus.”
“Life on Venus? The discovery of phosphine, a byproduct of anaerobic biology, is the most significant development yet in building the case for life off Earth,” he wrote.
The bulk of current efforts to look for past extraterrestrial life focus on Mars, which is known to have once contained all the necessary ingredients to support carbon-based organisms.
The US and China recently sent rovers to the Red Planet, while the United Arab Emirates sent an atmospheric probe.
Alan Duffy, an astronomer from Swinburne University and lead scientist of The Royal Institution of Australia, said that while it was tempting to believe that the phosphine was produced by lifeforms, “we have to rule out all possible other non-biological means of producing it.”
He called the finding “one of the most exciting signs of the possible presence of life beyond Earth I have ever seen.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which has conducted several flybys of Venus, called Monday’s research “intriguing.”
“As with an increasing number of planetary bodies, Venus is proving to be an exciting place of discovery, though it had not been a significant part of the search for life,” he tweeted.
He added that the planet was the focus of two out of four of NASA’s next four candidate missions under its Discovery Program, as well as Europe’s proposed EnVision mission, in which NASA is a partner.
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