The Quest for Life on Venus

One night time in 2017, the James Maxwell Telescope in Hawai’i turned its 15-meter dish towards the bright-yellow dot of Venus. The telescope’s devices dutifully recorded the sunshine coming from the planet for Jane Greaves, an astronomer and astrobiologist at Cardiff College in Wales. Greaves and her staff have been on the lookout for a little-known chemical referred to as phosphine. On , yow will discover phosphine in swamps, the place micro organism produce it as a waste product. It’s additionally manufactured as an industrial fumigant to rid homes of moths, beetles, and fruit flies.

For many years, some scientists have theorized that Venus may harbor life in its higher environment, the place temperatures and pressures are benign regardless of the hellscape beneath. Nothing we all know of on Venus may produce greater than only a hint of phosphine—except there’s something residing within the planet’s pale clouds.

A yr later, as Greaves sat alone in her workplace, she noticed what she was on the lookout for in her Venus : indications of phosphine. It wasn’t a powerful sign, nevertheless it positively appeared to be there. “I spent ages considering there was nothing there, however one night, I used to be pushing the info round, and instantly, I spotted all of it got here collectively,” Greaves advised The Planetary Society. “That simply blew me away. There actually was phosphine.”

Venus, as soon as hoped to harbor paradise, was off as essentially the most inhospitable place within the photo voltaic system. However Greaves’ discovering has renewed in a planet some scientists say has been uncared for for much too lengthy. Did life ever flourish on Venus, and is there one thing nonetheless alive in its clouds, or will these newest findings solely add to an extended checklist of false hopes?

Earlier than the Area Age, scientists thought-about Venus as Earth’s sister
planet, maybe even liveable like our personal. The 2 share
almost the identical measurement and density, and since a thick veil of clouds
shrouds Venus’ floor, some hoped that the world subsequent door was a
tropical paradise with oceans and considerable vegetation.

NASA’s Mariner 2 , the very first profitable planetary
mission, dashed this idyllic view in December 1962. The probe flew previous
Venus, recording temperatures of no less than 150 to 200 levels Celsius
(300 to 400 levels Fahrenheit) and a punishing atmospheric strain 20
occasions that of Earth’s.

“Venus Says No,” lamented a headline within the New York Occasions, opining that Mariner 2’s “message from Venus could mark the start of the tip of mankind’s grand romantic desires.”

Some scientists remained hopeful. In 1963, a Harvard assistant
professor named Carl Sagan—nonetheless years away from changing into a widely known
science communicator—conjectured within the NASA movie The Clouds of Venus
that the planet’s harsh situations may solely exist within the environment.
“It’s simply attainable that the floor temperature may then be nearly
Earthlike and life as we all know it may exist there,” he mentioned. “Nevertheless,
it’s extra probably that if there may be life on Venus, it’s in all probability of a
kind that we couldn’t now think about.”

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