No doubt everyone reading this today has heard about the amazing discovery of phosphine in Venus’s clouds. It’s a chemical compound that can be made through industrial processes or via biological processes. Short of finding some kind of smog-filled industrial capital on the planet, it may be that some form of alien life is involved at Venus.
BUT, and I want to stress this strongly, the presence is phosphine at Venus is not YET proof of alien life there. It’s a very strong signature. The scientists involved in the discovery have exhausted every avenue of study to figure out what’s producing phosphine there that isn’t a form of life. So, like good scientists, they have announced their findings and now await confirmation by other scientists of their conclusions.
As Dr. Clara Sousa-Silva of MIT said (and she’s studied phosphine for years), “It’s very hard to prove a negative. Now, astronomers will think of all the ways to justify phosphine without life, and I welcome that. Please do, because we are at the end of our possibilities to show abiotic processes that can make phosphine.”
I hope this engenders a lot of work for scientists, because the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe is an important step forward. So, they need to do it right. And, I know they will.
Finding alien life has been a driver for the science astrobiology. Heck, it’s been a driver in astronomy. Who hasn’t looked up at night and wondered if somebody else is “out there”, looking back at us? So yeah, the allure of finding life on other worlds has been with us for a long, long time.
The Allure of Venus’s Alien Life
So, what kind of life would create phosphine? Where would it “live” on Venus. The most likely life-bearing region on the planet is actually in its atmosphere. There’s a fairly temperate zone ranging between 45 and 60 kilometers above the surface. It’s a place where the temperatures lie in a range between 20 and 200 degrees F. That’s not a bad temperature range for extremophile life forms, the kind that think boiling water is a great place to live or where cold temperatures are just a cool day.
However, there’s a lot of sulfuric acid in Venus’s clouds, and that’s not so great for any kind of life. No even some tough little microbes. So, there is a “Goldilocks zone” of sorts in the Venus atmosphere where air-borne microbial life could exist, even if it has to deal with acidic droplets.
What Would Venus Alien Life Look Like?
Yesterday, on the Space Hangout, we all talked about the possibility of such life. Fraser Cain suggested that one way it could exist would be that it hides out in water droplets, and then sporulates as it drops through the atmosphere. The spores would be hardened against the acidic environment, get blown back up to the “Goldilocks Zone”, where they’d sprout, live, and then start the whole process over again.
That’s certainly one way to do it. But, I suspect there are others. And, knowing planetary scientists and astrobiologists, we’re bound to see some pretty interesting suggestions come out. However, first everybody has to work through all the possibilities of the types of life that could be making the phosphine. Then, they’ll have to figure out the chances of such things actually existing. It’s going to be an exciting time in both sciences! Stay tuned!
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