On September 14, news of phosphine uncovered on Venus sent the science community into a spiral of excitement. Media outlets quickly got hold of the finding, making the jump to declarations of “signs of life.” Let’s take it back a step — what is phosphine anyway, and what is all the buzz about?
What is phosphine?
For starters, it doesn’t seem all that desirable at first glance. According to the CDC, it is very flammable and very explosive, and extreme levels of inhalation exposure can even be fatal. The gas has no visible color, yet it carries a scent of rotting fish or garlic. Despite these qualms, the substance has proved useful as a fumigant and as an input in the production of flame retardants.
The reason scientists are taking note, though, is a result of phosphine’s connection to the possibility of life. Here on Earth, the gas exists only alongside life, particularly in the cases of microbes living in spots largely deprived of oxygen.
So is there life on Venus?
Maybe, but not exactly. Venus is far from the portrait of an ideal life-supporting planet, with a surface that measures in at nearly 900℉. The extreme environment is largely due to a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that fuels a serious greenhouse effect. (This is one of the reasons why exploring Venus has been so difficult.) The phosphine discovered was not on the surface, however — it was in the atmosphere. Although said atmosphere is composed of roughly 90% sulfuric acid, the pressure and temperature are decidedly more bearable within the clouds than on the planet itself.
If there really is life on Venus, what would that mean for us here on Earth?
Of course, remembering the definition of “life” is crucial. While it is true that living beings are complex, the typical Toy Story-style green alien that comes to mind at the mention of the word “extraterrestrial” isn’t quite what we are dealing with at the moment. For now, we’re thinking more along the lines of microorganisms. As evolution takes its course, though, who’s to say what Venus might have in store?
Do you think the evidence is convincing enough to determine that there is indeed life on Venus? Let us know in the poll below.
Cover Image from NASA via Unsplash
Do you think there could be life on Venus?