Posted September 15, 2020 9:29 am by

Scientists find gas on Venus linked to life on Earth

Conditions on Venus are often described as “hellish” with daytime temperatures hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere comprised almost entirely of carbon dioxide © NASA/JPL/AFP/File / Michael Benson

Paris, France, Sep 14 – The atmosphere of Venus contains a gas that on Earth can be attributed to living organisms, scientists said Monday, a discovery the head of NASA called “the most significant development yet” in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

Conditions on our planetary neighbour are often described as hellish with daytime temperatures hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere comprised almost entirely of carbon dioxide.

However, a team of experts detected traces of phosphine, a flammable gas that on Earth often occurs from the breakdown of organic matter.

They used telescopes in Hawaii and Chile’s Atacama Desert to observe Venus’ upper cloud deck, around 60 kilometres (45 miles) from the surface.

Writing in Nature Astronomy, the team stressed the presence of phosphine did not prove the presence of life on Venus.

But, as the clouds swirling about its broiling surface are highly acidic and therefore destroy phosphine very quickly, the research did show that something was creating it anew.

Scientists find gas on Venus linked to life on Earth

This image from the European Southern Observatory shows an artistic impression of Venus, where scientists have confirmed the detection of phosphine molecules, a representation of which is shown in the inset. © European Southern Observatory/AFP / M. KORNMESSER, L. CALCADA

The researchers conducted several modelling calculations in a bid to explain the new phosphine production.

They concluded that their research provided evidence “for anomalous and unexplained chemistry” on Venus.

Lead author Jane Greaves, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy told AFP that the presence of phosphine alone was not proof of life on Earth’s next door neighbour.

“I don’t think we can say that — even if a planet was abundant in phosphorus, it might lack something else important to life — some other element, or conditions might be too hot, too dry,” she said.

Greaves added that it was the first time phosphine had been found on a rocky planet other than Earth.

The breakthrough was hailed by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who tweeted, “it’s time to prioritize Venus.”

“Life on Venus? The discovery of phosphine, a byproduct of anaerobic biology, is the most significant development yet in building the case for life off Earth,” he wrote.

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