Venus is Earth’s nearest neighbor, and at one time even looked similar to it in size and rocky composition.
But it’s a whole different kind of similarity that’s generating buzz in the scientific community: the possibility of life.
A group of scientists discovered evidence of phosphine, a molecule made of phosphorous and hydrogen, in Venus’ clouds. It’s an unlikely sign of life on a planet known for extreme temperatures.
“A lot of us in my field are motivated by understanding if there is life elsewhere in the universe so this is exciting that it could be so nearby,” said University Of Chicago astrochemist Dr. Jennifer Bergner.
Bergner said around 60 or 80 kilometers above the surface of Venus, the clouds are home to a temperate climate and Earth-like pressure.
“This is the sweet spot where it’s way too hot close to the surface and way too cold higher up, but in this region you could have conditions suitable to life,” Bergner said.
Researchers used two powerful telescopes – one in Hawaii and one in Chile – to make their observations. On Earth, you’ll find phosphine in only a few select spots, including the intestines of badgers.
“It would look really different from what we think of as trees and plants here on Earth, it would be this cloud-based microbial life,” Bergner said.
So, what does the discovery mean for humankind? Bergner is excited but cautious.
“I’m definitely holding out to see if other evidence falls into place, but if it is detected and it is life it would be ground-breaking,” Bergner said. “Even if it’s not life, it still teachers us something about the exotic chemistry that happens in Venus.”
NASA has two possible missions to Venus already in the works as part of its discovery program. Ultimately, scientists hope to collect samples from the planet’s atmosphere for further study.