Headlines exploded this week with the possibility that life may exist on Venus. While scientists did make an exciting find, it’s much too early to make plans for contacting supposed weird-looking creatures hiding under the planet’s swirling clouds.
Researchers using telescopes in Hawaii and Chile found the signature of a chemical called phosphine, made of three hydrogen atoms and one phosphorus atom. On Earth, phosphine is only associated with life. The chemical is found in the “ooze at the bottom of ponds, the guts of some creatures like badgers, and perhaps, most unpleasantly, associated with piles of penguin guano,” astrophysicist and study co-author David Clements said. Some man-made industrial processes also produce phosphine.
Venus and Earth are alike in size and made up of similar materials. But the planetary neighbors differ in other key ways: With a surface temperature of 880 degrees Fahrenheit, Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system. Thick, toxic gases surround it.
The study, published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, suggested microbes could explain the presence of phosphine. The researchers said they ruled out the most obvious alternative sources for the chemical, including volcanoes, lightning, and meteorites.
But the scientists also emphasized the limitations of the finding.
“It’s not a smoking gun,” Clements said. “It’s not even gunshot residue on the hands of your prime suspect, but there is a distinct whiff of cordite in the air which may be suggesting something.”
Attributing the phosphine signature to microbes living on the planet assumes the existence of a form of life vastly different from anything scientists have studied on Earth. Other researchers have said the phosphine could come from planetary processes they know nothing about yet. Astronomers have also found the chemical on gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, but they don’t think it points to life on either.
Brian Miller, research coordinator for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, said an unknown abiotic process would explain the presence of phosphine much more easily than the suggestion that life of any kind could arise on Venus’ hostile surface.
“The problem is that it’s pure speculation because the molecule is very, very simple,” he said. “The odds of a natural process producing the building blocks of life is much, much lower than some natural process producing phosphine.”
The researchers have just nailed down funding to look into what the existence of phosphine on Venus could mean, the Scientific American reported. That study could really shed light on whether life can exist on the planet.