The discovery of a rare chemical in the clouds of Venus could be a sign of life, an global team of astronomers said in a study published Monday.
The researchers did not discover actual life forms, but noted that on Earth phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments. They say detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial "aerial" life. The new discovery is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy.
Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, first detected phosphine on Venus in 2017. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimetre, much longer than the human eye can see - only telescopes at high altitude can detect this wavelength effectively. I thought we'd just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. Bad weather added a frustrating delay, but after six months of data processing, the discovery was confirmed.
Phosphine is one of the most foul-smelling gases known to man, with the odour of rotting fish, it is often found in penguin dung and pond slime.
Speaking to the New York Times, another planetary scientist named Sarah Stewart Johnson said: "There's been a lot of buzz about phosphine as a biosignature gas for exoplanets recently, how cool to find it on Venus?" The atmosphere is made up mainly of carbon dioxide, with the clouds made up mostly of sulfuric acid.
If we gather enough evidence in the future to show it is there, the most pressing question becomes: how similar is it to life on Earth? "On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about five percent of acid in their environment - but the clouds of Venus are nearly entirely made of acid".
Based on a press release by the Royal Astronomical Society.