A group of international scientists have unexpectedly detected phosphine in Venus' acidic clouds, a discovery that they say raises the possibility that life exists on the planet.
According to a press release by the Royal Astronomical Society, the team of scientists, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, detected the rare molecule using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii before confirming their discovery using 45 high-powered telescopes at a facility in Chile.
"In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below," Greaves said about the findings, which are detailed in a Nature Astronomy report.
Once the molecule's presence was confirmed, researchers ran calculations to see if it could have been produced from natural processes on Venus, but so far haven't come up with an explanation.
"We've done everything we can, which is go through all the things that it isn't. We've thought of every possible mechanism, plausible or implausible, that could make phosphine and we cannot come up with any," one of the lead researchers, Clara Sousa-Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Axios.
"Everything we can" reportedly wasn't an understatement, either. The Verge noted that researchers "modeled things like lightning strikes and meteors bombarding the planet's surface to see if such phenomena could produce the amount of phosphine they've seen" but that "so far, nothing matches up."
According to the press release, on Earth, phosphine is "only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments." In other words, there is no chemical or physical process that naturally produces phosphine — at least not one that we know of yet.
So, essentially, there is either some unknown geochemistry that is creating the phosphine, or life may actually exist on the planet.
Possible signs of life on Venus youtu.be
"At some point, you're left with not being able to explain it. Except we do know of a strange way of making phosphine on terrestrial planets — and that is life," Sousa-Silva told the Verge.
The idea that life may exist on Venus seems absurd since the planet is quite literally a barren wasteland covered by thick clouds full of sulfuric acid.
"It is literally billions of times more acidic than the most acidic environment on Earth," Janusz Petkowski, an astrobiologist at MIT, said. The planet's surface temperature can get up to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yet astronomers have mused for decades over the possibility that life exists there, ever since celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Harold Morowitz proposed the idea in 1967. Now there may be more reason to suggest as much.
Though, even with the discovery of phosphine, life on Venus is far from a sure thing. At this point, it's not much more than a "hint," as even the Royal Astronomical Society admits.