On Monday (14), researchers from the Royal Astronomical Society, in the United Kingdom, announced that they had detected potential signs of life on Venus. The study, published in Nature Astronomy, indicates the presence of significant sources of phosphine in the planet’s atmosphere, one of the brightest objects in the night sky.
Phosphine is a colorless and odorless gas that, on Earth, arises as a result of the decomposition of organic matter, being produced by anaerobic microbes (which do not require oxygen) or by industrial processes.
As there are no industries on Venus, astronomers have formulated two hypotheses for the high concentration of phosphine in Venusian clouds (20 parts per billion). One is the possibility of some chemical reaction completely unknown to science, creating the substance there. The other, “more exciting”, is the presence of living organisms producing the gas.
The chemical element was detected in 2016 by the team of Cardiff University professor Jane Greaves, using the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, while looking for molecule signals. Last year, researchers used the more powerful Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), located in Chile, to confirm the discovery.
“Surprising and unexpected discovery”
Until now, Venus was not on the list of planets most likely to harbor life. Temperatures around 800 degrees and clouds laden with sulfuric acid, which block most of the sunlight, make life difficult as we know it – not even the probes sent there have been able to withstand hostile conditions for long.
For this reason, the detection of phosphine on Venus was considered a “surprising and unexpected discovery”, according to Greaves, who points to the planet’s atmosphere as a more conducive environment for the survival of microbial life, as opposed to the surface.
The researchers hope that the novelty will motivate the launch of missions to Venus, to better clarify this mystery.