Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds

Last year, researchers made headlines when they announced the finding of large phosphine sources in the atmosphere of Venus. They believed at the time that the colorless, odorless gas may be an indication of life because it’s commonly the result of organic stuff breaking down on Earth. The idea that clouds in the planet’s dense, carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere could host life forms that are also impervious to the very corrosive sulfuric acid droplets surrounding them is still a leap.

Indeed, several experts have slammed the notion, pointing to the likelihood of a data processing error that calls the evidence into question. However, a new study has resurrected the intriguing theory. The presence of ammonia, which astronomers assume is present in the planet’s atmosphere thanks to the Venera 8 and Pioneer Venus probe flights in the 1970s, might neutralize sulfuric acid, according to MIT scientists. They claim that ammonia would start a sequence of chemical processes that would convert Venus’ clouds into a livable environment.

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In short, the researchers conclude in their report, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that “life on Venus could be creating its own environment.” The researchers conclude that “our model suggests that the clouds are more habitable than previously assumed, and maybe inhabited.” The authors speculate that the ammonia gas itself could be the consequence of biological activity rather than lightning or volcanic explosions, as prior research has suggested.

In a news release, co-author Sara Seager, a planetary sciences professor at MIT, stated, “There are very acidic situations on Earth where life does live, but it’s nothing like the climate on Venus — unless life is neutralizing some of those droplets.”

It’s an exciting conclusion, but nothing short of sending a probe into Venus’ atmosphere will be able to prove the intriguing theory conclusively. Fortunately, both NASA and the European Space Agency intend to deploy spacecraft to our nearest planetary neighbors within the next ten to fifteen years. So, maybe, some answers will be forthcoming.