Heavy emphasis on ‘potential.’
Out of every planet in our Solar System that we’d expect to be secretly housing life, Venus is pretty low on the list. About 96% of the planet’s atmosphere is pure carbon dioxide, and the surface usually hits temperatures of around 400 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day. Life, at least as we understand it, simply can’t live in such conditions. This is why it was so confusing when researchers discovered a particular kind of gas on the planet’s surface that can only be produced by living beings.
Researchers from Cardiff University in the UK discovered streams of phosphine floating about 50 km off the surface of Venus. Now you may be wondering “what’s the big deal about one more gas on a decisively gassy planet?” Well, I’ll tell you: phosphine, made up of phosphorous and hydrogen, is found in the stomachs of particular animals here on Earth. In the icy north or gas-choked swamps, if you look in the guts of animals dwelling in biomes lacking in oxygen, you’ll find phosphine, and the only way we know of to produce this particular gas is in animal guts or in a factory. Unless there’s an invisible factory on Venus, one can’t help but draw the obvious conclusion.
“That’s why this is such an extraordinary detection, because it has to come from something completely unexpected,” MIT molecular astrophysicist Clara Sousa-Silva explained to The Verge. “At some point, you’re left with not being able to explain it. Except we do know of a strange way of making phosphine on terrestrial planets — and that is life.”
Obviously, this doesn’t automatically mean there’s life hiding on Venus somewhere. The chief problem at the moment is that the gas was seen way up in the air, and Venus’ clouds are chock full of sulfuric acid, which would completely melt any organic life that comes in contact with it. A theoretical life form, say a microbe of some kind, would need to either develop some kind of natural defense against acid, or possess some kind of melt-proof armor. It’s the sheer uncertainty of the entire situation that has researchers chomping at the bit for more info.
“It’s really exciting and will lead to new discoveries – even if the original phosphine detection were to turn out to be a spectroscopic misinterpretation, which I don’t think it will. I think that life in Venus’ clouds today is so unlikely that we’ll find other chemical pathways of creating phosphine in the atmosphere – but we’ll discover lots of interesting things about Venus in this search,” Oxford University’s Dr. Colin Wilson told BBC News.