Fri. Sep 25th, 2020

Life on Venus would be ‘completely different’ to anything on Earth, claims MIT scientist

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For years, scientists searching for signatures of alien life have omitted Venus from their hunt. With surface temperatures that can melt lead, a crushing atmosphere and toxic clouds made of sulphuric acid, Venus appears to be an uninhabitable hellscape. So it came as a great shock when scientists found a possible sign of life in the planet’s upper atmosphere, hinting at the possibility the planet is not dead after all.

On Monday, September 14, an international collaboration of scientists led by researchers in the UK presented their discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.

The discovery of phosphine is an exciting development because on Earth it is produced by microbes and industrial processes.

No other presently known event, such as volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts, could explain the presence of phosphine on Venus.

Scientists are now exploring two possibilities: the phosphine is created through some yet-to-be-discovered event or alien microbes are alive and well in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

And if life does exist on Venus, odds are it will look unlike anything we have come to know on Earth.

Dr Janusz Pętkowski from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who took part in the study, said: “Even the most extremophilic bacteria living on Earth would not be able to cope in such an environment.

“Sulphuric acid, however, is a solvent, a liquid. And the presence of some liquid is essential for life to function.

“We do not know if any life is capable of functioning in such a high concentration of sulphuric acid.”

It must be life that is completely different to the one we know

Dr Janusz Pętkowski, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

There are many places on Earth where life thrives despite being seemingly at odds with its environment.

Microbes in the hot springs of Yellowstone in the US, for instance, have adapted to the near-boiling and acidic waters.

Or deep-sea vents where heat and minerals, including sulphur, spew from cracks between tectonic plates are also full of microbes.

Dr Pętkowski said: “If it turns out there is life in the clouds of Venus, then it must be life that is completely different to the one we know.

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“In theory, however, you could construct biochemistry that is compatible with sulphuric acid.

“You can, after all, imagine that life on Earth – with such an abundance of oxygen, that oxidises everything – would be unbearable to other life forms.

“But we have adapted. Oxygen is not our enemy, as it was three billion years ago. It has become a necessity for us.

“Could an analogous situation have happened on Venus where sulphuric acid has become essential to life?

“It is not known. But we can wonder about it.”

However, without sending a dedicated probe to study the planet’s atmosphere, scientists will not be able to verify whether the phosphine has an extraterrestrial origin.

According to Dr Pętkowski, computer models suggest Venus once resembled Earth with running water and a milder climate.

But some 700 million years ago, everything went pearshaped, turning the second planet from the Sun into the hottest world in the system.

Scientists will now focus on the planet’s clouds in hopes of solving the phosphine mystery.

Dr Pętkowski said: “In Venus’ clouds – at heights of 55km – temperatures range between 20 and 60C, and so it would be a lot easier to survive.”

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