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Gas spotted in Venus’s clouds could be a sign of alien life

A new possibility: Are there aliens on Venus? Amazingly, unbelievably, the prospect is no longer totally unimaginable. A new paper published in Nature Astronomy reveals that Venus’s clouds contain traces of phosphine, a gas that generally indicates the presence of life here on Earth.

Erm, what? On Earth, phosphine is primarily produced naturally by microbes in oxygen-poor ecosystems. In the absence of life you need exceptionally high temperatures and large amounts of energy to make phosphine (like the conditions found deep inside giant planets like Jupiter). The researchers have so far ruled out any known natural routes for phosphine production on Venus, including lightning, volcanism, or meteoritic delivery. 

So where’s the phosphine coming from? It could be some kind of “exotic chemistry” not seen on Earth, or—and this is where it gets really exciting—some hardy form of life. MIT astronomer Sara Seager and some of the other coauthors of this new study recently published a paper about a possible life cycle on Venus that could sustain organisms in clouds. They suggest that life on Venus could exist in droplets at high altitudes that evaporate and leave dried-up spores hanging in the atmosphere. These spores could rise back up in growing droplets in the cloud layer, and rehydrate to continue their life cycle.

So when will we know for sure? Unsurprisingly, scientists are excited. But unfortunately, there are no new missions to Venus slated for the future. NASA is currently debating two proposals—both orbiters that could help in this sort of investigation. The new findings could help support the case to move forward with either or both of them. Read the full story.

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