Astronomers Spot Possible Signs Of Extraterrestrial Life In Venus’s Clouds

There may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet, scientists said.

By Seth Borenstein

Astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus: hints there may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet.

Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venutian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Astronomy.

Several outside experts — and the study authors themselves — agreed this is tantalizing but said it is far from the first proof of life on another planet. They said it doesn’t satisfy the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967.

“It’s not a smoking gun,” said study co-author David Clements, an Imperial College of London astrophysicist. “It’s not even gunshot residue on the hands of your prime suspect, but there is a distinct whiff of cordite in the air which may be suggesting something.”

As astronomers plan for searches for life on planets outside our solar system, a major method is to look for chemical signatures that can only be made by biological processes, called biosignatures. After three astronomers met in a bar in Hawaii, they decided to look that way at the closest planet to Earth: Venus. They searched for phosphine, which is three hydrogen atoms and a phosphorous atom.

On Earth, there are only two ways phosphine can be formed, study authors said. One is in an industrial process. (The gas was produced for use as chemical warfare agent in World War I.) The other way is as part of some kind of poorly understood function in animals and microbes. Some scientists consider it a waste product, others don’t.

Phosphine is found in “ooze at the bottom of ponds, the guts of some creatures like badgers and perhaps most unpleasantly associated with piles of penguin guano,” Clements said.

Study co-author Sara Seager, an MIT planetary scientist, said researchers “exhaustively went through every possibility and ruled all of them out: volcanoes, lightning strikes, small meteorites falling into the atmosphere. … Not a single process we looked at could produce phosphine in high enough quantities to explain our team’s findings.”

That leaves life.

The astronomers hypothesize a scenario for how life could exist on the inhospitable planet where temperatures on the surface are around 800 degrees (425 degrees Celsius) with no water.

“Venus is hell. Venus is kind of Earth’s evil twin,” Clements said. “Clearly something has gone wrong, very wrong, with Venus. It’s the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect.”

But that’s on the surface.

Seager said all the action may be 30 miles above ground in the thick carbon-dioxide layer cloud deck, where it’s about room temperature or slightly warmer. It contains droplets with tiny amounts of water but mostly sulfuric acid that is a billion times more acidic than what’s found on Earth.

The phosphine could be coming from some kind of microbes, probably single-cell ones, inside those sulfuric acid droplets, living their entire lives in the 10-mile-deep clouds, Seager and Clements said. When the droplets fall, the potential life probably dries out and could then get picked up in another drop and reanimate, they said.

Life is definitely a possibility, but more proof is needed, several outside scientists said.

Cornell University astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger said the idea of this being the signature of biology at work is exciting, but she said we don’t know enough about Venus to say life is the only explanation for the phosphine.

“I’m not skeptical, I’m hesitant,” said Justin Filiberto, a planetary geochemist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston who specializes in Venus and Mars and isn’t part of the study team.

Filiberto said the levels of phosphine found might be explained away by volcanoes. He said recent studies that were not taken into account in this latest research suggest that Venus may have far more active volcanoes than originally thought. But Clements said that explanation would make sense only if Venus were at least 200 times as volcanically active as Earth.

David Grinspoon, a Washington-based astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute who wrote a 1997 book suggesting Venus could harbor life, said the finding “almost seems too good to be true.”

“I’m excited, but I’m also cautious,” Grinspoon said. “We found an encouraging sign that demands we follow up.”

NASA hasn’t sent anything to Venus since 1989, though Russia, Europe and Japan have dispatched probes. The U.S. space agency is considering two possible Venus missions. One of them, called DAVINCI+, would go into the Venutian atmosphere as early as 2026.

Clements said his head tells him “it’s probably a 10% chance that it’s life,” but his heart “obviously wants it to be much bigger because it would be so exciting.”

Venus could have been habitable while life evolved on Earth

By Aviva Rutkin

Nicknamed Earth’s evil twin, Venus seems like everything our planet is not: scorching hot, dried out and covered in toxic clouds.

But a mere one or two billion years ago, these two wayward siblings might have been more alike. New computer simulations suggest that early Venus might have looked a lot like our home planet – and it might even have been habitable.

“It’s one of the big mysteries about Venus. How did it get so different from Earth when it seems likely to have started so similarly?” says David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. “The question becomes richer when you consider astrobiology, the possibility that Venus and Earth were very similar during the time of the origin of life on Earth.”

Grinspoon and his colleagues aren’t the first to imagine that Venus was once hospitable. It’s similar to Earth in size and density, and the fact that the two planets formed so close together suggests that they’re made of the same bulk materials. Venus also has an unusually high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen atoms, a sign that it once housed a substantial amount of water, mysteriously lost over time.

Venus, but snowy
To simulate early Venus, the researchers turned to a model of environmental conditions often used to study climate change here on Earth. They created four versions for Venus, each varying slightly in details such as the amount of energy the planet received from the sun, or the length of a Venusian day. Where information was scant about Venus’s climate, the team filled in educated guesses. They also added a shallow ocean, 10 per cent the volume of Earth’s ocean, covering about 60 per cent of the planet’s surface.

Looking at how each version might have evolved over time, the researchers say they were encouraged to believe that the planet might have looked much like an early Earth, and remained habitable for a substantial portion of its lifetime. The most promising of the four Venuses enjoyed moderate temperatures, thick cloud cover and even the occasional light snowfall.

Could life have emerged on this early Venus? If it did, it’s certainly no more, thanks to the oceans later boiling away and volcanoes drastically reshaping the landscape around 715 million years ago. But the team is not ruling it out.

“There’s great uncertainties in understanding Earth, not only its climate history but the history of how life began,” says Michael Way at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. If it began in oceans on Earth – a theory we’ve yet to confirm – the same could be true on a waterlogged Venus. “There’s no reason that life on this world would not have existed in these oceans. But that’s about all you can say.”

Alternative histories
“Both planets probably enjoyed warm liquid water oceans in contact with rock and with organic molecules undergoing chemical evolution in those oceans,” says Grinspoon. “As far as we understand at present, those are the requirements for the origin of life.”

To bolster their findings, the team suggests a future mission to Venus should look out for signs of water-related erosion near the equator, which would provide evidence for the oceans detailed in their simulation. Such signs have already been detected by missions at Mars. NASA is currently weighing up two potential Venus projects, although neither has been confirmed. One mission would drop a probe through the clouds down to the surface, while another would orbit around the planet and image its surface.

The researchers would also like to run simulations of further alternative pasts for Venus – perhaps one where it was a desert world, or submerged in as much water as Earth, to find out which scenario is most likely to lead to the Venus we see today.

The study could also aid astronomers in their search for exoplanets, says James Kasting at Pennsylvania State University. If Venus might have once been habitable, then it suggests that other planets close to their stars might be, too. “If you make the habitable zone really wide, that raises the probability of finding an Earth.”