A chemical in Venus’ acidic atmosphere might indicate that we’re not alone in the universe.

By Stefanie Waldek
September 14, 2020
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This global view of the surface of Venus is centered at 180 degrees east longitude. Magellan synthetic aperture radar mosaics from the first cycle of Magellan mapping are mapped onto a computer-simulated globe to create this image. Data gaps are filled with Pioneer Venus Orbiter data, or a constant mid-range value. Simulated color is used to enhance small-scale structure. The simulated hues are based on color images recorded by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 spacecraft.
NASA/JPL

From apocalyptic orange skies due to wildfires to an incredibly active hurricane season to a pandemic that’s upended life as we know it, 2020 has been quite a year for planet Earth. As it turns out, it’s also a big year for our neighbor, Venus.

A team of astronomers led by Jane Greaves from the Cardiff University has announced the discovery of the chemical phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, reporting their findings in a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy today. Phosphine, which is found here on Earth both in nature and in labs, is a biosignature, or a potential indicator of life — and researchers believe it might be life on Venus that’s producing it there.

Venus has long been overlooked in the search for extraterrestrial life because it has an extremely inhospitable environment. The planet is enshrouded in clouds of sulphuric acid, and the temperatures on the rocky surface can reach 880 degrees Fahrenheit. But scientists hypothesize that that might not have always been the case.

Earlier in its life, Venus might have been a lot cooler, which means life in the form of microbes could have existed on the surface. As the planet heated up, that life might have migrated into the less hostile atmosphere — temperatures can be as low as 86 degrees Fahrenheit — where they could produce phosphine. It’s not at all an impossibility: Microbes are known to live in the harshest environments here on Earth, such as in the crushing depths of the sea or in acidic volcanic lakes.

While phosphine on Venus is a big find, there needs to be quite a bit of follow-up research to determine why exactly the chemical exists on Venus. Phosphine has already been detected on Saturn and Jupiter, where it exists not because of the presence of life, but because of unique atmospheric conditions that can create it. In the case of Venus, the researchers don’t believe what they’ve observed could be attributed to those same atmospheric processes; they’re hoping that their research will spark new projects, including planetary probes, that will help us find out once and for all whether or not we’re alone in the universe.

Now, if there is life on the planet, we’re talking about tiny organisms, not intelligent life, so if you had “alien invasion” on your 2020 bingo card, you won’t need to mark that spot just yet. But keep a weather eye on Venus anyway — the truth might just be out there.