2020 can and will get weirder before it’s all over and, for all we know, the end may come from above. Yes, Nature Astronomy has published a report from a team of researchers led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University. They found huge quantities phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus — quantities of gas that can not, as far as we know, be created without life.
We have lots of phosphine here on earth, though we’re not proud of it. It is, according to the Independent, “one of the most foul-smelling and toxic gases there is.” Rotten fish? Phosphine. Pond slime? Phosphine. Penguin dung? Phosphine again. It’s created by certain bacteria and microbes — and some industrial processes — and you don’t really want to be around when it happens, if you can help it.
Soooooo, what is it doing on Venus? Researchers don’t know but have, in the past, thought of the gas as a good biosignature” — a sign of potential life. It’s been observed on other, more distant planets in the past, but its presence on Venus suggests the potential for extraterrestrial life right here in our own solar system.
Although to live on Venus, it’d have to be pretty unique life. The surface of Venus is about 900 degrees Fahrenheit and acidic to boot, so it probably would be something very different from what we call life here. Although, scientists note that the temperatures are much more temperate about 35 miles above the surface so maybe we’re talking about flying aliens? Or an Empire Strikes Back Cloud City-type situation? Who knows.
Now, obviously, this isn’t proof of life. The article itself notes that the presence of phosphine is “not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry.” In other words, this very likely means that phosphine can be created in a natural, non-organic way human researchers don’t understand yet.
“Or,” writes Emily Drabek-Maunder, an astrophysicist from the Royal Observatory Greenwich and an author on the paper, “there could be a biological reason.”
It’s 2020. Anything’s possible.