How Much Life Would Be Required to Create the Phosphine Signal on Venus?

Venus and Earth surfaces compared. Turns out the clouds of both may harbour life

A Biosignature

Last week, an incredible announcement was made about the search for extraterrestrial life: Phosphine gas detected in the clouds of Venus – a potential indicator of life or “biosignature.” Now some gases might be a false positive for biosignatures because they can be created by other chemical processes on a planet like photochemical processes in the atmosphere or geological processes beneath the surface that create a given gas. For example, methane can also be a biosignature, and we’ve been hunting it down on Mars, but we know that methane can also be created geologically. Finding phosphine in Venusian clouds is truly remarkable because we don’t presently know of any way to create phosphine abiotically or without life being a part of the equation. Question is – how much life??

Clouds of Venus as seen from Mariner 10’s flyby – NASA
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Could There Be Life in the Cloudtops of Venus?

A composite image of the planet Venus as seen by the Japanese probe Akatsuki. The clouds of Venus could have environmental conditions conducive to microbial life. Credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science

When it comes to places with the potential for habitability, Venus isn’t usually considered on that list. The hot, greenhouse-effect-gone-mad neighboring planet with a crushing surface pressure and sulfuric acid clouds certainly isn’t friendly to life as we know it, and the few spacecraft humanity has sent to Venus’ surface have only endured a few minutes.

But up about 40 to 60 km (25 to 37 miles) above the surface, the atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like of any other place in the Solar System. There, Venus has air pressure of approximately 1 bar and temperatures in the 0°C to 50°C range. It’s not quite a shirtsleeves environment, as humans would need air to breathe and protection from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere. Plus, also consider that Venus is considered to be in the habitable zone of our star.

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