There was quite a bit of buzz on the interweb yesterday after some news leaked from the British Royal Astronomical Society. (It’s not a source of leaks that you normally see here.) The results of a study of the upper atmosphere of the planet Venus have yielded some surprising discoveries that the scientists involved in the project intend to announce later today. The longest thing is that they have discovered significant amounts of phosphine in the upper Venusian atmosphere. This basic chemical compound consisting of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms should not be found in large quantities in the Venusian atmosphere for one simple reason. It is most commonly (though not uniquely) produced as a result of the breakdown of organic matter. In other words… life. Could something really be alive in the atmosphere of Venus? A brief explanation from astrobiology.com follows.
[A]According to several sources informed about the details of the announcement, phosphine was discovered in the atmosphere of Venus. Its presence suggests ̵1; it suggests – a strange chemistry going on as phosphine is something you would only expect to see if life (as we know it) was involved.
The presence of phosphine is seen by many astrobiologists as a “biosignature” or an indicator of the possible presence of life. The survey was carried out by the Atacama array (ALMA) located in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope located in Hawaii. The research team includes members of the University of Manchester, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cardiff. An article will appear in the September 14 issue of Nature Astronomy.
Both MIT and Cardiff University seem to be quite excited about this. They have been studying the data for some time, trying to find some non-biological source that could explain the observed phosphine levels and are drawing a blank. And if we eliminate the other potential sources, the only thing left seems to be some form of life in the upper atmosphere of Venus.
In this leaked video, MIT astrobiologist Janusz Petkowski explains how they seem pretty convinced we’re up to something and don’t have (yet) an explanation aside from life.
So this is crazy, right? Life on Venus? Well … maybe not as crazy as it seems at first. A popular and plausible theory among astrophysicists holds that a couple of billion years ago, Venus looked a lot like Earth in its formation stages. It may have had liquid water and conditions suitable for life for several billion years until about 750 million years ago, when everything literally went to hell in a basket. So maybe life arose there and some remnants of Venusian biology float in the planet’s upper atmosphere, which is actually quite hospitable compared to the conditions on the surface. It is filled with water vapor and other random particulates and the temperature is pleasantly warm far above the Venusian surface.
But that said, you’re asking the Venusians to do some heavy lifting. When I said things literally went to hell there, I wasn’t exaggerating. The Soviet Union landed dozens of probes on Venus between 1967 and 1983, sending video and environmental data. What they found was a planet with surface temperatures of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit, a partially molten surface, and nearly constant rain. Except the “rain” is not water. It’s sulfuric acid.
At some point, the planet may have been habitable, but it spiraled into an out-of-control greenhouse effect that changed it completely. (We don’t know why this happened, but for now, I just assume that the Venusian fracking program was not sufficiently regulated by their global government.) Some microbes may have found a way to survive in the more pleasant conditions found in the upper atmosphere for all this time? Maybe.
But there is another possible explanation to consider. Remember those Soviet probes I mentioned above? Couldn’t it be possible that some terrestrial microbes hitchhiked one or more of them, broke off when the probe entered the atmosphere, and basically sowed the clouds with a starter kit for life? To find out, I guess we should have a probe that can collect and return some samples and examine them. If they have the same DNA as the microbial beasts found on Earth, we may have our answer. But if they are something almost entirely different, then the case could be made for a true Venusian genesis, and it wouldn’t be that stimulate interesting conversations? Obviously, if you happen to believe in the panspermia hypothesis (as I do), then the galaxy is probably very bad in life and shares a common ancestor, modified through evolution to adapt to the environment in which it lands.
The official announcement of the British Astronomical Society will be given later this morning on their Facebook page. Stay tuned.