Possible signs of life discovered on Venus | News | DW | 14.09.2020
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Possible signs of life discovered on Venus

Scientists have discovered the existence of a unique gas on the "hell" planet Venus which points towards possible signs of life. While not "a smoking gun", researchers describe it as an encouraging sign.

Venus and moon in the night sky (picture-alliance/Zuma Press/D. Becker)

Venus, as seen from the Earth next to a crescent moon

Astronomers announced the discovery of potential signs on life on Earth's neighboring planet on Monday, in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Scientists working with telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile found signatures of clouds containing phosphine, a noxious gas which on Earth is associated with life.

"It's not a smoking gun," said study co-author David Clements, an Imperial College of London astrophysicist. "It's not even gunshot residue on the hands of your prime suspect, but there is a distinct whiff of cordite in the air which may be suggesting something.'' 

While Clements only gives a 10% probability of life existing on Venus, he was excited about the possibility.

Read more: Why look for life in 'alien oceans' on distant moons?

On Earth phosphine gas has only been found to exist as the product of an industrial process — used for chemical warfare during the World War I — or as an output of an unknown process in some animals and microbes.

Phosphine has been found as "ooze at the bottom of ponds, [in] the guts of some creatures like badgers and perhaps most unpleasantly associated with piles of penguin guano," Clements explained.

'Venus is hell'

Venus is an inhospitable planet with surface temperatures reaching 800 degrees Fahrenheit (425 degrees Celsius) and lacking water.

The astronomers explained, however, that at 30 miles (48 kilometers) above the surface, a thick layer of carbon dioxide cloud cools down to around room temperature and contains droplets with small amounts of water along with mostly sulfuric acid.

The authors speculated that any potential life would most likely be single-cell microbes existing within those acidic droplets.

Another possible explanation for the phosphine gas is volcanic activity, according to Justin Filiberto, a planetary geochemist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. "I'm not skeptical, I'm hesitant,'' he said regarding the discovery.

Read more: Modern spy satellites in an age of space wars

"I'm excited, but I'm also cautious,'' commented David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute in Washington. "We found an encouraging sign that demands we follow up.''

NASA is currently considering its first missions to Venus since 1989.

ab/dj (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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