Astronomers May Have Found Traces of Life on Venus

upper atmosphere of planet hints at traces of microbial life

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Phosphine has been detected in the atmosphere of Venus, suggesting life, CBS News reported. On Earth, phosphine is usually a result of human industry or microbes. What other secrets could Venus be holding?

Although the inhospitable surface of Venus does not lend itself to hosting life, the possibility of microbial activity has been noted in the upper layers of the planet’s atmosphere. Photo By buradaki / Shutterstock

According to CBS News, a chemical compound may have a lot more to say about our solar system than we might have thought. “Traces of a rare molecule known as phosphine have been found in the hellish, heavily acidic atmosphere of Venus, providing a tantalizing clue about the possibility of life,” the article said. “Phosphine molecules found on Earth are primarily a result of human industry or the actions of microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.

“In the planet’s upper atmosphere, temperatures are […] hospitable. Despite the acidic nature of the clouds, scientists have speculated it may be possible for alien microbes to exist.”

In what ways does Venus compare to Earth? And how is it different?

Venus at a Glance

“At around 50 to 65 kilometers above the surface, we find that Venus offers some conditions surprisingly similar to the surface of the Earth,” said Dr. Sabine Stanley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “The temperature, atmospheric pressure, and even shielding from the Sun’s radiation are comparable to what we take for granted at Earth’s surface.

“Compared to Mars or open space, the atmosphere of Venus would have less radiation from the Sun, which would make long-term Venus missions much less hazardous for astronauts and equipment.”

However, Dr. Stanley was quick to point out that there are challenges involved when it comes to exploring Venus. For example, she said there’s a highly reflective cloud and haze blanketing the planet, making it difficult to see very much. In fact, she said that Venus’s atmosphere is much denser and under higher pressure than on Earth.

“At Venus’s surface, the pressure is 92 bars,” she said. “That’s 92 times Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level. It’s about the same pressure as you would experience if you were under a kilometer of water in Earth’s oceans.”

The Troposphere Differential

“On Earth, the bottom layer of the atmosphere, called the troposphere, extends from the surface up to an average of about 10 kilometers,” Dr. Stanley said. “This is the layer of the atmosphere where most of the weather happens; three quarters or more of all atmospheric mass is here. The defining characteristic of the troposphere is, this is where temperature decreases with height due to convection.”

Dr. Stanley said that another major factor of the atmosphere involves what exactly the air is made of.

Venus’s atmosphere is overwhelmingly carbon dioxide; Earth’s atmosphere is 3/4 nitrogen,” she said. “Why are their compositions so different? It turns out that Earth, as a planet, still has about the same amount of carbon dioxide as Venus; it’s just that Earth removes it from the atmosphere.

“Earth buries carbon dioxide in carbonate rocks and plants convert it to oxygen in the air.”

There’s still a lot more to discover on Venus despite what we already know. This potential discovery of life is just a small hint of what may lie under cover of cloud.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Sabine Stanley, PhD, contributed to this article. Dr. Stanley is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. She received a HBSc degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Toronto and then completed MA and PhD degrees in Geophysics from Harvard University.