Science

Out of this world: finding life on Venus

by Safaa Hussain | October 5, 2020

Possible life on Venus in the form of tiny microbial extremophiles accustomed to harsh conditions such as volcanic eruptions. Art by Nicole Schubert (’22)

For centuries, humans have been fascinated by the subject of extraterrestrial life, conjuring images of frightening green aliens and studying footage of mysterious UFOs. However, with a mix of avid believers, skeptics, and those who simply don’t know what to accept, the possibility of other life existing in the universe has long divided the scientific community. But on September 14, 2020, a group of scientists led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales announced the presence of phosphine gas about 97 million miles away, in Venus’ atmosphere. Nicknamed Earth’s sister planet due to its similar size and composition, Venus has always been a promising planet to explore for potential life despite its harsh atmospheric conditions. Because phosphine on Earth is only produced industrially by humans or naturally by anaerobic microbes, the finding strongly points to a possible “biosignature” of life in Venus’ clouds, implying that we may not be alone in the universe.

In light of the discovery, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine urged the organization to focus future space missions on taking a closer look at this intriguing planet, which also happens to be the closest in proximity to Earth. Even before announcing the groundbreaking news, NASA coincidentally had planned to launch two orbiters to Venus by the end of the decade, but the detection of phosphine has added a sense of urgency to the project. These operations would send satellites into Venus’s cloudy atmosphere and near its rocky surface to probe its habitability in terms of atmospheric water vapor and “hydrated” surface minerals. Because water is essential to life, these findings point to further evidence of extraterrestrial beings.

While our plans to probe Venus will further our understanding of the planet, no definitive statement can yet be made on if the planet harbors life. There is only one possible way to know for certain—sampling organic material from Venus and bringing it to Earth for additional research. Luckily, the enormity of this news has spurred countless private companies across the world to take on this task, which is predicted to be completed as soon as 2023.

Aside from the excitement of finding other life forms, the data that scientists can potentially gather from Venus has extensive application to climate change here on Earth. Researchers say that Venus was likely very similar to our planet in its past, covered by oceans and ample water, but excessive carbon dioxide spurred a drastic greenhouse effect eventually causing the extreme temperatures we observe on Venus today. By drawing parallels and studying the progression of Venus, experts hope to develop a model for Earth’s future to prevent such severe climate change.

If the distant aliens on Venus do prove to exist, they will likely be far from our idea of the colorful, odd creatures featured in Hollywood. Instead, scientists predict that they are presumably tiny microbial extremophiles, accustomed to Venus’s scarce water, abundant sulfuric acid, and active volcanic patterns. While we cannot expect an alien invasion by intelligent life from Venus anytime soon, we can now look to the skies knowing that there may be other creatures living closer to us than we ever thought possible!

Categories: Science

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