Is there life on Venus?

JAXA / ISAS / AKATSUKI PROJECT TEAM

Scientists Find a Possible Sign of Life on Venus.

The discovery of a strange gas in the atmosphere puts the planet “into the realm of a perhaps inhabited world,” a researcher says.

After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the Earth’s night sky, gleaming like a tiny diamond in the darkness. The planet is so radiant because of its proximity to Earth, but also because it reflects most of the light that falls across its atmosphere, more than any other world in the solar system.

Something really weird is happening in those clouds.

Scientists revealed today that they have detected traces of a gas in the Venusian atmosphere that, according to everything they understand about Venus, shouldn’t be there. They considered many explanations for what could be producing the gas, known as phosphine, and settled on an explanation guided by what they know about our own planet. On Earth, phosphine—a toxic gas—is produced by microorganisms.

“As crazy as it might sound, our most plausible explanation is life,” Clara Sousa-Silva, a molecular astrophysicist at MIT and one of the authors of the new study, told me.

Before everyone starts screaming, I need to emphasize that the discovery of phosphine molecules in Venus’s atmosphere does not mean that scientists have found proof of alien life. The detection is simply evidence of a phenomenon scientists can’t yet explain. The phosphine could be created by some form of life, or it could be forged by a chemical process that scientists just haven’t seen before.

Either way, Venus, a world with a reputation for being hot and hellish, just became one of the most intriguing—and closest—spots in the universe to investigate the question of whether life exists beyond Earth. A NASA rover is currently on its way to Mars to look for signs of life, but the robot is designed to find long-dead microbes, preserved in the rusty soil for billions of years. The phosphine discovery presents the tantalizing possibility that life might be on Venus right now. If this discovery is confirmed, which will likely require sending a spacecraft, we would know for the first time in human history that the solar system has two planets where life exists. In a cosmic sense, we wouldn’t be alone anymore.

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