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Venus clouds show signs of possible life

Sean Keach, September 15, 2020 6:45PM The Sun

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Artist’s illustration of the main bodies of our Solar System, with the Sun at left, with Mercury, Venus, the Earth, from left in front, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, from left in background. Picture: ESA via AP media_cameraArtist’s illustration of the main bodies of our Solar System, with the Sun at left, with Mercury, Venus, the Earth, from left in front, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, from left in background. Picture: ESA via AP

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Alien life could be producing an Earth-like gas on Venus, our closest space neighbour.

Venus is the hottest planet in the Solar System — its surface temperature is 470C — and the pressure is so high that even if a human survived the heat they’d be crushed alive.

But scientists think the milder upper cloud layer on Venus is where some forms of life could be.

Supporting that theory is a team of British scientists who have discovered phosphine gas in Venus’ atmosphere.

On Earth, phosphine is made by the breakdown of organic* matter and the same could be true for Venus.

Now scientists will need to send a probe to Venus to confirm the existence of alien life.

media_cameraAn artist’s illustration showing Venus and molecules of phosphine (inset). The molecules were detected in the Venusian high clouds in data from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Picture: AFP/European Southern Observatory/NASA/M. Kornmesser/L. Calcada

ABOUT PHOSPHINE
Phosphine can turn up on a planet in many different ways.

It can be created in the atmosphere, on the surface, or below the surface. And it can even be delivered from another planet.

On Venus, the phosphine was detected around 60km above the surface – in the cloudy atmosphere.

Scientists say it’s unclear how this could happen without help from alien life.

Sadly, there’s no 100 per cent guarantee that life is hiding away on Venus – yet.

“We emphasise that the detection of phosphine is not robust* evidence for life,” said Professor Jane Greaves, of Cardiff University in the UK, who led the team that made the discovery.

“However, we have ruled out many chemical routes to phosphine, with the most likely ones falling short by four to eight orders of magnitude.”

Phosphine is widely accepted as being a “promising sign of life”, when found in a rocky planet’s atmosphere.

Traces of phosphine in Earth’s atmosphere are directly linked to human and microbial activity.

On the giant gas planets in our Solar System, phosphine is produced at deep atmospheric layers and then moves upwards but the solid surface of Venus should prevent this from happening.

On Venus, phosphine created in this way would likely be destroyed by the highly-oxidised crusts and atmosphere.

So finding phosphine in the atmosphere of rocky Venus could be a key sign that life is hidden away in the planet’s cloud layers.

The researchers warned that the phosphine could also originate from “unknown photochemistry or geochemistry”, yet to be discovered by science.

It’s unlikely that we’ll find the source of the gas without investigating the clouds or surface of Venus directly – using some kind of spacecraft.

All three planets in our evening sky have spacecraft in orbit around them.  The European Space Agency's Venus Express Craft has been in operation since 2006.  Courtesy ESA media_cameraAn artist’s illustration of the European Space Agency’s Venus Express Craft, which has been in operation since 2006. Picture: ESA

The clouds of Venus have been considered a candidate for hosting life for decades.

But even though temperatures are milder in the atmosphere, it’s still not a hospitable place for life. The atmosphere is thick with sulfuric acid, which would destroy many forms of life.

Some of the refuted explanations for the presence of phosphine included delivery by volcanic activity, lightning and meteorites.

Scientists described the rates of phosphine these methods could deliver as “negligible*”.

This research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

media_cameraThe famous first close-up photo of Venus, taken by NASA’s Mariner 10 on February 5, 1974. Picture: NASA

ABOUT VENUS
Venus is nearly the same size as Earth with a diameter of 12,104km compared to Earth’s 12,742km.

It rotates in the opposition direction to most planets, potentially due to an asteroid collision.

The first man-made aircraft landed on Venus in 1996.

Venus is the hottest planet in the Solar System.

It is the second brightest object in the sky at night.

This story was first published on The Sun and is republished here with permission.

27/04/2009 ARTS: Venus Actual size: 12,104 km in diameter Distance: 108,208,930 km from the sun Mission: Magaellan Source: NASA, JPL Pic. Supplied media_cameraVenus, photographed by the Magellan spacecraft in 2009. Picture: NASA/JPL

GLOSSARY

  • organic: from living things including plants, animals
  • robust: strong
  • negligible: hardly anything; so little it hardly matters

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is this story about?
  2. Describe the climate on Venus.
  3. What substance is there lots of in the atmosphere of Venus?
  4. How big is Venus?
  5. When did a spacecraft land on Venus?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. What’s Hiding in the Clouds of Venus?
After reading the Kids News article, discuss with a friend what you think about this gas being detected on Venus. Do you think there could be another life form in the clouds of Venus?

Work with your friend to draw and write about the type of life form that you think could be living on Venus. What do they look like? How do they live? What do they do?

Share your drawing and ideas with the class.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Explain in a paragraph why you think Venus is the second brightest object in the sky at night.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
Wondrous Wow Words
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think there is life on Venus?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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