Venus, the brightest object in the night sky other than the moon, can often be seen within a few hours before sunrise and after sunset. But something weird is going on in its clouds.
Astronomers just found traces of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus, and this could be a sign that the planet supports microbial life or unknown chemical processes.
Phosphine, a colorless gas that smells like decaying fish or garlic, is naturally produced by certain microorganisms. According to their understanding, the gas should not be there.
Scientists have cautioned that life is one possible explanation for the source of phosphine in Venus.
“As crazy as it might sound, our most plausible explanation is life,” said Clara Sousa-Silva, a molecular astrophysicist at MIT and one of the authors of the study, The Atlantic reported.
The research team wrote in their paper: “Phosphine could originate from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry — or, by analogy with biological production of phosphine on Earth, from the presence of life.
“If no known chemical process can explain phosphine within the upper atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions.”
They added: “This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry — or possibly life.
“Even if confirmed, we emphasise that the detection of phosphine is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry.
“There are substantial conceptual problems for the idea of life in Venus’s clouds — the environment is extremely dehydrating as well as hyperacidic.
“However, we have ruled out many chemical routes to phosphine, with the most likely ones falling short by four to eight orders of magnitude.”
“To further discriminate between unknown photochemical and/or geological processes as the source of Venusian phosphine, or to determine whether there is life in the clouds of Venus, substantial modelling and experimentation will be important.
“Ultimately, a solution could come from revisiting Venus for in situ measurements or aerosol return.”
Professor Jane Greaves noted: “The only successful Lander that sent back Venus data was Vega 2, in 1985.
“Let’s hope now that space agencies will want to go back.”
Astronomer Alan Duffy, who wasn’t involved in the study, said: “This is one of the most exciting signs of the possible presence of life beyond Earth I have ever seen — and certainly from the most surprising location I could imagine.”
The findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
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