An international team of researchers has discovered the presence of the chemical compound phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus — a discovery that could indicate some form of life on the hot planet. They describe their findings in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Jonathan Lunine, who was not involved in the Nature study, is a professor of physical sciences and chair of the astronomy department at Cornell University. He has worked on problems related to the origin of life in exotic environments, including Saturn’s moon Titan. He was part of a team that mapped the distribution of phosphine in Jupiter’s atmosphere from the Juno mission, and has published on the detection of phosphine in the atmospheres of extrasolar giant planets with the James Webb Space Telescope:
“Is there life on Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbor planet? At first this seems like an absurd question, because the surface temperature of Venus is above the melting point of lead. And, yet, the answer might be ‘possibly.’ In 1967, Carl Sagan speculated that life might exist in the Venusian clouds. What would be a signpost of such organisms? Phosphine or PH3 is difficult to make in hydrogen-poor environments like Earth’s or Venus’, and so could be such a signpost.
“If there is life, where did it come from? Spacecraft missions have shown that Venus’ surface once hosted an ocean that was lost in the distant past. Perhaps microbes could have found a refuge in the clouds as the ocean evaporated away. Or perhaps they were carried to Venus on meteorites blasted off Earth or Mars — or even carried there by our own space probes. Only future missions can answer these questions.”
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