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Opinion: Our crazy finding suggesting life on Venus

September 15, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Sara Seager, a professor at MIT and a co-author of a study that found phosphine gas on Venus, writes that the astonishing discovery now raises the planet "as just one more place to take seriously in the search for life beyond Earth."

The discovery of phosphine gas in Venus' atmosphere has just upped the planet's appeal.

I was a member of the multinational research team that announced the finding in Nature Astronomy on Monday, and my takeaway is that it indicates there is something highly unusual going on to produce phosphine -- either some completely unknown chemistry, or possibly some kind of microbial-type life.

Phosphine is a gas made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms.

Phosphine is toxic to any life on Earth that uses oxygen, including humans.

The finding is so astonishing because phosphine should not be present in Venus' atmosphere.

Phosphine needs lots of hydrogen and the right temperatures and pressures to form -- conditions found on Jupiter and Saturn but not at all on Venus.

My team at MIT exhaustively searched all known chemistry and did not find any way for phosphine gas to be easily produced on Venus.

Planetary processes including volcanoes, lightning, meteorites entering Venus' atmosphere are also "no goes" in that some might produce the tiniest amount of phosphine but not nearly enough to match the observations.

Does this mean Venus has alien life in its atmosphere producing phosphine gas?

Venus is a very hostile place for any kind of life as we know it.

On Venus there is a sweet spot at 48 to 60 km (30 to 37 miles) above Venus' surface, in the clouds, where the temperature is not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life.

Earth-life components including DNA, proteins, and amino acids would be instantly destroyed in sulfuric acid.

Any life in the Venusian clouds would have to be made up of building blocks different than Earth life, or be protected inside a shell made up of sulfuric acid-resistant material such as wax, graphite, sulfur, or something else.

People have been speculating about the presence of life in the clouds of Venus for over 50 years, starting with Carl Sagan.

Yet our team lead Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK purposely decided to search for signs of life on Venus by way of phosphine gas.

By coincidence, my team at MIT had also been working on phosphine gas as part of a larger project trying to understand which gases on exoplanets -- planets orbiting stars other than the sun -- might indicate the presence of life.

Our finding of phosphine gas now raises Venus as just one more place to take seriously in the search for life beyond Earth -- maybe not so crazy after all.

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