A discovery out of this world: there might be life on Venus

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Agustin Zelikson, News Editor

Venus, our neighboring planet, has been long thought of as an inhospitable place, but because of new data, some are saying that life is lurking in the atmosphere of the planet.

On Sept. 14, Jane S. Greaves of the University of Cardiff in England and Anita M. S Richards of the University of Manchester published a paper on a newly discovered chemical element in Venus’s atmosphere: phosphine. This element is believed to be the key to life on the planet. 

For years, scientists looked only to Mars, Enceladus, the moon of Saturn and Europa, the moon of Jupiter, as places where there may be signs of life in our solar system. This recent discovery changes the direction of the telescopes in the science community to our nearest neighbor, since astronomers and astrobiologists are racing to understand the reason for this element.

Scientists believe phosphine, the chemical produced on the planet, is made by an organic process. This means that something that is alive is creating it, asserting that there could be life on Venus. On Earth, phosphine is only produced by microorganisms, so this discovery demonstrates that either there exists life on the planet, or there are atmospheric processes that scientists have not yet discovered.

Still, according to MIT scientist William Bains, the researchers haven’t ruled out other explanations.

“In order to make this quite extraordinary claim that there might be life there, we really have to rule everything out, and that’s why we’re very cautious saying we’re not claiming there’s life, but claiming there’s something that is really unknown and it might be life,” Bains said.

To find out the answer to the question of life on Venus, some researchers are now advocating to send balloon-based probes by 2022, which would be able to detect where the phosphine is originating. Andreas Hein, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Paris-Saclay University in France, talked to Forbes about the idea of this probe. 

“The life-detection mission we conceived would deploy microscopes to look for cell-like morphologies… the dust and aerosol particles in the atmosphere would be collected and the microscope would scan these particles to search for [indications] of biology,” Hein said.

The discovery of phosphine in Venus shows that our neighboring planet could have life, and whether there are organisms or not, this planet that was once known as a hellish place and overlooked by scientists just became an enigma to the science community that is waiting to be solved.