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Could There Be Life On Venus? Researchers Find Possible Sign

Venus is seen as a dot as it transits across the Sun on June 6, 2012 outside Sarajevo.
Venus is seen as a dot as it transits across the Sun on June 6, 2012 outside Sarajevo.

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Astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus: hints there may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet.

Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venusian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Astronomy. Several outside experts — and the study authors themselves — agreed this is tantalizing but said it is far from the first proof of life on another planet. They said it doesn’t satisfy the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967. As astronomers plan for searches for life on planets outside our solar system, a major method is to look for chemical signatures that can only be made by biological processes, called biosignatures. After three astronomers met in a bar in Hawaii, they decided to look that way at the closest planet to Earth: Venus. They searched for phosphine, which is three hydrogen atoms and a phosphorous atom. On Earth, there are only two ways phosphine can be formed, study authors said. One is in an industrial process. (The gas was produced for use as chemical warfare agent in World War I.) The other way is as part of some kind of poorly understood function in animals and microbes. Some scientists consider it a waste product, others don’t. Today on AirTalk, we discuss the results of the recent study and how significant they could be in the search for life beyond Earth. 

With files from the Associated Press


Shannon Stirone, freelance writer based in the Bay Area who’s been covering this for the New York Times; she tweets @shannonmstirone 

Sukrit Ranjan, planetary scientist and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, where his work focuses on the coupling of planets and life; formerly a postdoc at MIT, where he was a co-author on four of MIT’s papers regarding phosphine and Venus