Sign of life found in Venus’ clouds rekindles idea of floating cities for humanity

Venus: Life could be discovered by spacecraft says scientist

The extraordinary possibility of living organisms swimming through the dense Venusian atmosphere has been enhanced after scientists detected tantalising levels of phosphine gas, which is a bio-signature for life. A scientific paper published on September 14 entitled “Phosphine on Venus Cannot be Explained by Conventional Processes” described the discovery of a chemical marker of life in the atmosphere of Venus. The opening lines of the paper stated: “The recent candidate detection of 20 ppb of phosphine in the middle atmosphere of Venus is so unexpected that it requires an exhaustive search for explanations of its origin.”

The paper seductively added that no ordinary “phosphine production pathways are sufficient to explain the presence of ppb phosphine levels on Venus”.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, Dr Sousa-Silva of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said: “We do know of one way that phosphine could be produced in the clouds, and that is life.

“Of course, that is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires extraordinary evidence, which we don’t have.

“But until we understand Venus better, it is the only explanation left.”

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The closest physical explanation for the presence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere could be explained by extreme Vulcanism coming from the planet’s surface.

However, Dr Sousa-Silva did stress that the amount of the gas produced from volcanos on the planet’s surface would be too weak and does not explain “the abundance of phosphine” that recent data has estimated.

Astronomers used data from ALMA and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to make the tantalising discovery.

Phosphine is produced in such quantities on Earth in two ways, one is through industrial processes such as emissions from factories, the other is from microbial life, such as the organisms that thrive in the stomachs of penguins or in oxygen-starved swamps.

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Both these explanations only exacerbate Venus’ “phosphine puzzle” that the recent findings have presented.

MIT’s Dr Clara Sousa-Silva said the detection of phosphine on the planet was a reason to expend more effort in researching the planet’s anomalies.

She added: “Venus has been woefully overlooked in the past decades”

“The planet’s clouds could be are a more interesting target for habitability than Mars”.

At a certain altitude within the Venusian atmosphere, the temperatures and pressures are sympathetic to human life, albeit without the oxygen.

This has led scientists to propose floating cities in the planet’s clouds.

The concept would see human habitats buoyed by huge helium-filled balloons floating 30 miles high above Venus’ hell-like surface.

NASA has drawn up plans for such an idea, called the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept.

One advantage that a Venus colony would have over one on Mars is that the planet’s clouds would also shield humans from the dangers of space-based radiation.

Also, the gravity on Venus is nearly as strong as that on Earth, meaning very little muscle and bone deterioration for colonists.

But, astronauts would never be able to say they made landfall on the planet, as the surface is hot enough to melt lead.

The study into phosphine gas on the Venusian clouds did receive one update in November 2020.

The data was reprocessed and the phosphine levels adjusted to one-seventh of their original estimate.

However, the discovery is still significant and a mystery.

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