Scientists and astronomers are flummoxed today after detecting a gas – phosphine – in the atmosphere of Venus that they can’t explain.
Here on Earth, it’s associated with life, with microbes living in the guts of animals like penguins, or in oxygen-poor environments such as swamps.
Now one can make phosphine industrially, but as there are no factories on Venus – or penguins – it seems odd to find it in the clouds of Venus.
So what’s it doing there?
Prof Jane Greaves, from Cardiff University, UK and colleagues are asking just this question:
“Through my whole career I have been interested in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe, so I’m just blown away that this is even possible,” Prof Greaves said. “But, yes, we are genuinely encouraging other people to tell us what we might have missed. Our paper and data are open access; this is how science works.”
Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist from the University of Westminster, is cautious but intrigued:
“If life can survive in the upper cloud-decks of Venus – that’s very illuminating, because it means maybe life is very common in our galaxy as a whole. Maybe life doesn’t need very Earth-like planets and could survive on other, hellishly-hot, Venus-like planets across the Milky Way.”
So what do we do?
Send a probe to investigate specifically the atmosphere of Venus.
The US space agency (Nasa) asked scientists recently to sketch the design for a potential flagship mission in the 2030s. Flagships are the most capable – and most expensive – ventures undertaken by Nasa. This particular concept proposed an aerobot, or instrumented balloon, to travel through the clouds of Venus.
“The Russians did this with their Vega balloon (in 1985),” said team-member Prof Sara Seager from MIT. “It was coated with Teflon to protect it from sulphuric acid and floated around for a couple of days, making measurements.
“We could definitely go make some in-situ measurements. We could concentrate the droplets and measure their properties. We could even bring a microscope along and try to look for life itself.”