Scientists have detected within the Venusian atmosphere a chemical known to be a byproduct of life.
- A team of researchers has detected significant amounts of phosphine within the cloud deck of Venus.
- Computer simulations suggest that the amount of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere couldn't have been produced by known inorganic processes.
- The findings aren't conclusive evidence of alien life, but they do suggest Venus shouldn't be overlooked in the search for alien life.
Pioneer Venus orbiter illustration
NASA<p>It's not conclusive evidence of life: Phosphine (PH3) can be produced through inorganic processes, like interactions involving sunlight, surface minerals, volcanic activity, and lightning. </p><p>But the study authors considered these and other potential sources, and they created computer models to test whether they could simulate the production of phosphine on Venus. The results produced small amounts of the chemical, but not nearly as much as multiple observatories have detected within the cloud decks of Venus.</p><p>So, for now, scientists don't know what's producing the phosphine. Alien life remains a plausible explanation.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Technically, biomolecules have been found in Venus' atmosphere before, but these molecules are also associated with a thousand things other than life," study co-author Clara Sousa-Silva told <a href="https://news.mit.edu/2020/life-venus-phosphine-0914" target="_blank">MIT News</a>. "The reason phosphine is special is, without life it is very difficult to make phosphine on rocky planets. Earth has been the only terrestrial planet where we have found phosphine, because there is life here. Until now."</p>
The mission could launch as soon as the 2030s, the researchers said.
- A team of scientists have been developing a proposal that would send a semi-autonomous submarine to explore the seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
- Titan is the only body in our solar system that has large bodies of liquid on its surface.
- It's also a top candidate in the search for alien life.
Why study Titan?<p>Titan has long been a top candidate for space research and the search for alien life within our solar system. But scientists didn't know much about the Mercury-sized moon until 2004, when NASA's Cassini spacecraft began conducting flybys of Titan, and later landed the <em>Huygens </em>probe on the moon's surface.<br></p><p>That mission revealed that Titan is actually more like Earth than our Moon: Titan has an atmosphere with organic molecules and complex chemistry. It has rain and <a href="http://spaceref.com/saturn/violent-methane-storms-on-titan-may-explain-dune-direction.html" target="_blank">storms</a>, which help to shape the dunes on its surface. And it has maria (seas) and lacus (lakes), some larger than the Great Lakes of North America. Besides Earth, no other body in our solar system has liquid on its surface like Titan does.</p>
Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
When searching for extraterrestrial life, astronomers may want to look at planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres.
Until about a decade ago, only two habitable zone planets of any size were known to astronomers: Earth and Mars.
A few months ago a group of NASA exoplanet astronomers, who are in the business of discovering planets around other stars, called me into a secret meeting to tell me about a planet that had captured their interest.