“It's time to prioritize” this planet, said Jim Bridenstine, head of the US space agency.
September 14, 2020 Share on FacebookShare Share on TwitterTweet Share on WhatsAppShare
Astronomers discovered signs of life in the clouds of Venus (REUTERS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
The discovery in the cloud layers of Venus of a possibly life-indicating gas, phosphine , was celebrated on Monday by Jim Bridenstine, head of the US space agency, who said he now wants to prioritize the study of this planet, neglected in favor from Mars.
“Life on Venus? The discovery of phosphine, a byproduct of anaerobic biology, is the most important event to date in the search for life outside of Earth, ” the NASA administrator tweeted, in response to the publication early Monday of a study on the finding in the journal Nature Astronomy.
“It is time to prioritize Venus,” he stressed.
Jim Bridenstine's tweet
Venus, particularly hostile because it has an average surface temperature of 470 ° C, was explored as early as the 1960s, but was quickly deemed less scientifically interesting than Mars and the outer Solar System.
Several probes and rovers are currently heading to the red planet, but no mission specifically dedicated to Venus is in progress.
However, some scientists have been advocating for years to return to Venus , the brightest object in our sky after the Moon, and several new missions have been proposed, some of which are being considered by NASA.
A group of astronomers discovered in the acidic clouds of Venus a gas called phosphine that indicates that microbes can inhabit the inhospitable neighbor of the Earth , a clear indication of the presence of life beyond our planet, according to a study published by Nature Astronomy.
NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine (REUTERS / Mike Brown / Archive)
The “apparent presence” of phosphine was detected in the cloud layers of Venus and could be due to an unknown phenomenon or a form of life, according to the scientists. The researchers noted that on Earth, phosphine is produced by bacteria that thrive in oxygen-free environments.
The international scientific team first detected phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii and confirmed it using the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile.
“I was very surprised, actually stunned,” said astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The existence of extraterrestrial life has long been one of the fundamental questions of science. Scientists have used probes and telescopes to search for “biosignatures,” indirect signs of life, on other planets and moons in our solar system and beyond.
“With what we currently know about Venus, the most plausible explanation for phosphine, fantastic as it may sound, is life,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology molecular astrophysicist and study co-author Clara Sousa-Silva.
Phosphine, a phosphorous atom with three attached hydrogen atoms, is highly toxic to people.
Is there life on Venus? The Royal Astronomical Society's explanation of the finding
Phosphine was observed at 20 parts per billion in the atmosphere of Venus, a minimal concentration. Greaves said the researchers examined possible non-biological sources such as volcanism, meteorites, lightning and various types of chemical reactions, but none seemed viable.
The Spanish researcher Ignasi Ribas , from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) and the Institute of Space Sciences of the CSIC (main research center in Spain), told the EFE agency that we know very little about the chemistry of the atmosphere in Venus , which is nothing like Earth.
That the presence of phosphane on our planet is associated with life does not have to be the same there, he says.
“That possibility cannot be ruled out” and if it is verified “it will be fantastic”, but “there are still many scenarios to be ruled out, as there may be some type of unknown chemical reaction that occurs under certain conditions”, so you have to “make sure that there are no other mechanisms to explain these data ”.
The also Spanish astrophysicist Josep Maria Trigo , from the Institute of Space Sciences of the CSIC and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, highlights, for his part, that “significant proportions” of phosphane have been detected.
It is not that it is a small amount, which could perhaps be explained by some type of catalytic reaction, but it has been discovered that the presence of about 20 molecules per billion is what can still be considered a “significant amount”.
With information from AFP and EFE