It turns out Bowie might’ve been pondering life on the wrong planet after all.
According to research published today in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy, a toxic gas called phosphine has been discovered by astronomers in the highly acidic clouds in Venus’s atmosphere. The breakthrough is so cosmically huge that NASA boss Jim Bridenstine has declared the discovery ‘the most significant development yet in building the case for life off Earth.’
What makes the detection of phosphine so intriguing is that it’s only produced on Earth by microbes that thrive in the absence of oxygen or by industrial processes. While the same gas has been found in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, it’s understood that its creation there relies on chemical processes that aren’t possible on Earth or Venus.
We know the surface of Venus is uninhabitable—clocking temps in the 470 degree Celsius range—but the discovery could indicate that some form of life exists in the clouds 50 to 60 kilometres above it. According to the Nature Astronomy report, the temperature in the clouds where phosphine was found was a balmy and habitable 30 degrees C. Alternately, this could all mean there’s a geological or chemical process going on next door that we can’t comprehend, but that scenario is way less exciting in a time when we could all really do with something like an alien meet-and-greet to look forward to.
The gaseous discovery was made via a submillimetre-wavelength radio telescope called the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. The deputy director there, Jessica Dempsey, explained that usually you’ll find phosphine over swamps and things that are decomposing, and also anaerobic life like microbes that are sucked up into the air and into our clouds.’ Professor Jane Greaves (who led the international research team) entertained a bunch of scenarios that might explain the amount of phosphine found in Venus’ atmosphere, but nothing added up—be it chemical reactions in the clouds, minerals being blown up from the surface, volcanoes, lightning or even meteors.
The last time anyone or thing could’ve called Venus home was probably over a billion years ago, but this new information begs the question, what if something was able to survive in the clouds? And if so, is it a whole colony of women? It looks like we’ll know if John Gray was on the money sometime soon, with two NASA projects greenlit to pay a visit to our closest planetary neighbour within the decade. Watch this space.