Forget Mars: Astrophysicist says hunt for alien life shifts to Venus ‘without a doubt’

Although Hollywood would have you believe little green men run across the dusty fields of Mars, the search for alien life has cast a much wider net. From Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus to the watery world of Jupiter’s Europa, astronomers are looking for so-called “bio-signatures” – biological markers that could hopefully reveal the presence of living organisms. One such bio-signature, a noxious gas known as phosphine, has now been detected on Venus, fuelling renewed interest in the second planet from the Sun.

In a paper published today (September 14) in Nature Astronomy, an international collaboration of scientists has presented evidence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.

Here on Earth, the gas is produced through industrial means but is also produced by certain microbes starved of oxygen.

Scientists do not know of any non-biological means, such as volcano eruptions or asteroid impacts, that could release the gas into Venus’ atmosphere.

Unsurprisingly, the scientific community is now abuzz with excitement something extraterrestrial could be afoot in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

According to Dr David L Clements, Reader in Astrophysics at Imperial College London, the discovery is going to shift the world’s attention towards Venus.

He told “It’s going to change a number of priorities. Mars has been our favourite planetary destination for a long time, and, in the search for life, after that comes Enceladus and Europa in our own solar system.

“Our result changes that, and means that there will be much more of a focus on Venus to work out what is going on there.”

“After that, it rather depends on what is producing the phosphine. If it is life, then there is going to be a lot happening.

“If not, we’ll better understand Venus and what would have to be some very odd and complicated chemistry.”

If it is life, then there is going to be a lot happening

Dr David L Clements, Imperial College London

Dr Clements, who took part in the study, performed some of the data analysis and wrote and edited parts of the paper.

The astrophysicist was involved with the telescope proposals and the initial concept of the project.

The study was led by scientists here in the UK under Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University.

The astronomers detected trace amounts of the phosphine molecule in Venus’ atmosphere using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

However, the scientists will need to spend more time with the telescopes to better understand what exactly is going on Venus.

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Fortunately, Dr Clemenets believes Venus will now take the spotlight of scientific interest.

He said: “Without a doubt – at least for the next little while. It may be that someone will come up with a nonbiological way of producing phosphine in Venus, though our team haven’t managed to do that after exhaustive searches.

“If they can’t then we will see much more serious studies of how to get probes into the cloud decks of Venus and maybe bring some samples home.

“It also has implications for life on exoplanets, and where we might expect to find life in other solar systems.”

And although there is a lot we can learn about the planet from Earth, ultimately, some form of robotic probe will need to be sent to Venus.

Much like NASA’s Mars 2020 mission launched in July this year, an unmanned atmospheric probe will be best placed to study the phosphine.

And it is unlikely a human crew will ever make the trip to Venus – the atmosphere is crushing, the air is toxic and surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead.

Dr Clements said: “It is rather like the situation on Mars, but there is probably rather more we can do from Earth since the putative life on Venus is currently present, is in the clouds, and so its signatures are much more available to us for observation.

“With Mars, the life is either extinct and we’re looking for fossils, or buried beneath the surface at some still to be determined depth that could be rather large.”

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