Investigation Editor

The presence of phosphine on Venus suggests possible life. Does this prove that there is life on Venus?

Perhaps after the catastrophic year we've all had, the prospect of moving to an entirely different planet sounds quite promising. Like so many others, I was intrigued when I heard the news about possible alien life on Venus - it made a welcome change to the constant Covid-19 updates and news of local lockdowns. But before you start packing up your face masks to prepare for a new future, or start building an underground bunker for an alien invasion, read on to find out about whether alien life is possible.

A group of astronomers struck scientific gold when they detected signs of the deadly  noxious gas phosphine in the atmosphere of planet Venus. Despite being toxic (and rancid), the compound cannot be produced by non-biological processes in the conditions of Venus: in other words, it was indicative of potential alien life. Whilst the discovery is not definite confirmation of aliens, the most likely explanation for the gas would be biological processes on the planet.

This is not the first time that scientists have investigated the potential life forms inhabiting Venus, a planet that can be visible to the naked eye on occasion. Before the 1960s, it was widely believed that, because of the similarity between the conditions on Venus and Earth, our closest neighbour could potentially harbour strange life forms. This theory was debunked when the Mariner 2 space probe visited the planet to be greeted by hellish temperatures of about 400C. The Mariner 2 probe also discovered an atmospheric pressure around 100 times that of Earth, as well as the presence of deadly sulphuric acid. Since the Mariner 2 planetary encounter, experts have largely abandoned the theory of alien life on Venus, assuming that the environment is too inhospitable for any life to thrive.

However, this recent discovery posed a significant breakthrough for alien life theory: the surface temperatures of Venus might be too infernal for life as we know it, but it has been confirmed that temperatures can range from 30C to 200C in the area between 48 and 60 kilometres above the planet’s surface. Although this may be inhospitable for most Earth-inhabiters, some scientists have suggested that these temperatures could be ideal for other forms of life. It just so happens that phosphine was discovered in these very clouds. Could this be proof of alien life or simply a scientific anomaly?

Not all scientists agree that there are other life forms on Venus. Some have suggested that the phosphine discovery was a false alarm - it might have been a different chemical that was masquerading as the compound. More definitive proof is required to confirm that the chemical is in the clouds. It can often take years until unanimity is reached within the scientific community, but the research offers a glimmer of hope. In June 2017, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii detected a wavelength of light that evidenced phosphine in the clouds of Venus. The team investigated further in March 2019 from the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, where the same chemical was detected.

These discoveries beg the question: how could life possibly thrive in these hostile conditions? Some researchers have postulated that huge volcanoes pump phosphine directly into the atmosphere. The University of Glasgow’s chemistry expert, Lee Cronin, even suggested the possibility of rocks being hurtled into the atmosphere to react with other chemicals to create phosphine. In fact, there exist endless creative theories that could explain the phenomenon. One proposition argues that alien life could endure on the surface of Venus, in a non-carbon-based form, perfectly adapted to the infernal temperatures of 400C. Another hypothesis proposes that in the past, Venus had similar conditions to Earth: lower temperatures, lakes, and organic life forms. Then, the conditions became so hot on the surface that no life could survive, due to a greenhouse effect and a kind of outer-space climate crisis. Following the change of conditions, the only surviving life forms were forced to exist in the clouds. This milder climate is where the phosphine chemical was created, and comprises the last proof of these life forms. Some of those within the scientific community might disagree with this theory, because of the deadly sulphuric acid in the clouds, but experts have discovered acid-resistant bacteria on our planet, so it’s very possible that alien life could adapt to this.

The news of possible alien life is a fascinating development, and many scientists are confident that this could lead to more revelations about alien life. As with any breakthrough discovery, there will need to be more conclusive evidence of the alien-chemical before a consensus is reached in the scientific community. However, stranger things have happened in 2020, so keep an eye out for the alien invasion!

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