Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus after a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.
Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500°C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.
On Earth phosphine − a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms − is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.
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A group of British, American, and Japanese scientists – led by Professor Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified phosphine at Venus from Hawaii, US, using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope – the largest astronomical telescope in the world.
Presence of the gas was then corroborated using Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a complex astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile, South America. The discovery was confirmed after six months of data processing.
The study was published on Monday in the journal, Nature Astronomy.
Professor Greaves, who is an astrobiologist, said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock.”
Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science and understanding our Solar System”.
The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a relatively temperate part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life.
While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30C, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – posing a major issue for microbes to survive there.
Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate their findings.
“I’m particularly delighted to see UK scientists leading such an important breakthrough,” she added.
Nothing found since claims awed Clinton
In August 1996, President Bill Clinton legitimised the search for alien life in space when scientists claimed they had found evidence for microscopic fossils of bacteria in a meteorite, suggesting that they originated on Mars.
The president hailed the discovery saying: “If this is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined.”
Confirmation of even microbial life on Mars is still awaited. Nonetheless, the speech was deemed groundbreaking, for it was the first time a sitting president had used an executive office forum to discuss alien life.
Since then, researchers around the world have searched for life on Mars Last year a scientist at the University of Edinburgh examined ancient rocks on Earth to distinguish between fossils and non-biological structures.
More than 4,000 exoplanets have now been identified. A handful are thought to have the potential to harbour life but confirmation is lacking.
Other potential signs of life that have been sought include radio messages from space. As yet, none have been picked up.