Astronomers believe microbes may be living in Venus’ clouds

A recent study suggests that microbes may be lingering in the clouds 30 miles above the surface of Venus after telescopes detected what is believed to be high concentrations of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is associated with life.

The chemical signature of phosphine, which is three hydrogen atoms and a phosphorous atom, was detected by telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Astronomy.

The unexpected atmospheric detection of phosphine, a smelly gas made by microbes on Earth, could spark a revolution in astrobiology.

Posted by Scientific American on Monday, September 14, 2020

On Earth, there are only two ways phosphine can be formed, the study authors said. One is in an industrial process. The other way is as part of some kind of poorly understood function in animals and microbes. Some scientists consider it a waste product, others don’t.

Phosphine is found in “ooze at the bottom of ponds, the guts of some creatures like badgers and perhaps most unpleasantly associated with piles of penguin guano,” study co-author David Clements said.

Study co-author Sara Seager said researchers “exhaustively went through every possibility and ruled all of them out: volcanoes, lightning strikes, small meteorites falling into the atmosphere. ... Not a single process we looked at could produce phosphine in high enough quantities to explain our team’s findings.”

One of the likely locations for the phosphine would be in the atmospheric layer of Venus where temperatures are cooler than the 800 degree surface below, according to Scientific American.

The phosphine could be coming from some kind of microbes, probably single-cell ones, inside sulfuric acid droplets, living their entire lives in the clouds, Seager and Clements said. When the droplets fall, the potential life probably dries out and could then get picked up in another drop and reanimate, they said.

Life is definitely a possibility, but more proof is needed, several outside scientists said.

Read more about the study at Scientific American here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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