back to article Howdy, er, neighbor – mind if we join you? Potential sign of life spotted in Venus's atmosphere

Alien life may exist in the thick clouds in Venus’ atmosphere, scientists speculated in research published in Nature Astronomy on Monday. The team of astronomers say they discovered phosphine, a molecule made up of phosphorus and hydrogen atoms (PH3), floating around Earth’s closest neighboring planet. Phosphine is a flammable …

  1. aregross

    CHEKOV: I suppose it could be a particle of preanimate matter caught in the matrix.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      BONES: "It's life, Jim. Just not as we know it."

  2. HildyJ Silver badge


    First, before the detection on Venus, other boffins had proposed phosphine as one of several biomarkers for life on distant exoplanets.

    Second, the phosphine is localized. With the Chilean ALMA array (which is more sensitive than the Hawaiian telescope that made the first observation) they could narrow down the molecule’s signal to equatorial latitudes and an altitude between 32 and 37 miles, where temperatures and pressures aren’t too harsh for life as we know it. Based on the signal’s strength, the team calculated that phosphine’s abundance is roughly 20 parts per billion, or at least a thousand times more than we find on Earth.

    Third, theories as to how a microbe could metabolize sulfur as an energy source already exist.

    Absent an error in the data, Ockham's Razor suggests that life is the easiest explanation.

    Pints all around.

    1. USER100

      Re: Life

      This is totally momentous. It could mean the idea of panspermia is correct. There is no way life arose on Earth by chance. For years, boffins have tried to replicate the creation of life - they've failed.

      Maybe there is something bigger than we know (NNG), which might have spermed life out into the Universe.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Life

        > the idea of panspermia is correct. There is no way life arose on Earth by chance

        That's just kicking the question down the line. The one thing that we do know is that life arose *somewhere*. Most scientists would be surprised if they were able to to replicate in a lab millions of years of chemical reactions across millions of square kilometres.

      2. tfb Silver badge

        Re: Life

        It could mean the idea of panspermia is correct. There is no way life arose on Earth by chance. For years, boffins have tried to replicate the creation of life - they've failed

        Um, what? People have been trying to replicate the origins of life for, let's say, a century in a few isolated experiments with conditions which may or may not be similar to those when life actually originated. Given the earliest plausible date for life existing on Earth, which is 4.28 billion years ago, and assuming that life started in the oceans, which formed 4.41 billion years ago, life had 130 million years to get going, and the chemical and physical environments of the entire ocean to do it in.

        Come back and say something meaningful when you've run the experiments on the scale of entire oceans for 130 million years.

    2. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

      Re: Life

      There is also this on arxiv:

      Phosphine on Venus Cannot be Explained by Conventional Processes

      William Bains, Janusz J. Petkowski, Sara Seager, Sukrit Ranjan, Clara Sousa-Silva, Paul B. Rimmer, Zhuchang Zhan, Jane S. Greaves, Anita M. S. Richards

      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. Phosphorus-containing species have not been modelled for Venusian atmosphere before and our work represents the first attempt to model phosphorus species in Venusian atmosphere. We thoroughly explore the potential pathways of formation of phosphine in a Venusian environment, including in the planet's atmosphere, cloud and haze layers, surface, and subsurface. We investigate gas reactions, geochemical reactions, photochemistry, and other non-equilibrium processes. None of these potential phosphine production pathways are sufficient to explain the presence of ppb phosphine levels on Venus. The presence of PH3, therefore, must be the result of a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions. The process could be unknown geochemistry, photochemistry, or even aerial microbial life, given that on Earth phosphine is exclusively associated with anthropogenic and biological sources. The detection of phosphine adds to the complexity of chemical processes in the Venusian environment and motivates in situ follow up sampling missions to Venus.

    3. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: Life

      "Absent an error in the data, Ockham's Razor suggests that life is the easiest explanation."

      Not at all. Life is ultimately just a bunch of complex chemical reactions stuck together. So the alternatives presented here are either a simple unknown chemical reaction, or a big pile of more complicated unknown chemical reactions (the geological option just moves the simple reaction to a different location, so it doesn't form a third possibility). Occam's razor points very firmly at it not being life.

      It's still worth popping over there to have a poke around, since that's the only way to find out for sure - Occam only suggests that the less convoluted explanation is more likely correct, it doesn't give an actual answer to any question. But jumping straight to assuming a complex living ecosystem when you find a single simple molecule in a place you didn't expect is rarely likely to be a bet that pays off.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    “We tried very hard to make this result go away,”

    And *that* is the difference between scientific theory and your crazy uncle on Facebook who "has a theory" about something.

  4. lowwall

    xkcd coverage

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And Venus was her name


    Quick someone start a new religion to cover its existence

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: And Venus was her name

      "Quick someone start a new religion to cover its existence"

      Already done. Just look at some of the film from the USA in the 50s and 60s of UFO cults.

  6. Timbo

    errr...another possibility exists...

    ...and that is that both USA and Russia/USSR have sent probes to Venus, which have penetrated the Venusian atmosphere.


    Venera program — USSR Venus orbiter and lander (1961–1984) - various probes entered Venus atmosphere

    Pioneer Venus project — US Venus orbiter and entry probes(1978) - 4 probes entered Venus atmosphere

    Vega program — USSR mission to Venus and Comet Halley (1984) - 2 probes entered Venus atmosphere

    Magellan probe — US Venus orbiter (1989) - craft entered Venus atmosphere at end of mission

    Venus Express — ESA probe sent for the observation of the Venus's weather (2005) - deorbited at end of mission

    So, there is a possibility that one or more of these craft were not 100% "biomedically" clean, and that some organism(s) from Earth were carried on one (or more) of the probes and have now had time to acclimatise to the conditions on Venus and subsequently have multiplied to the point where they are now detectable?

    1. Conundrum1885

      Re: errr...another possibility exists...

      Nice try but this is *vanishingly* unlikely.

      Though the cloud layers on Venus are indeed Earth like in some respects, on our own planet even the hardiest extremophiles can't tolerate the heat, pressure AND acidity at the same time.

      Even the ones around black smokers have their limits.

      I would suggest that its more likely that life started independently on Venus and adapted to the changing conditions, eventually going airborne as the oceans started to evaporate.

      As a certain gentleman on a film once said, "Life WILL find a way"

      I've also theorised that life might exist using heavy metals as DNA "bases" where normal DNA is merely a stepping stone and this though very unlikely isn't impossible in the complete absence of oxygen.

      Some quirk of nuclear physics might permit isotopes to selectively leach out of the rocks so we just don't know what is really possible.

  7. heyrick Silver badge

    From penguin poop?

    That means only one thing...

    ...Venus runs Linux.

    1. LoPath

      Re: From penguin poop?

      I thought this meant that there was the possibility of a large penguin population on Venus.

      1. Clunking Fist Bronze badge

        Re: From penguin poop?

        And those penguins live in zeppelins and live off flying fish.

  8. revenant


    It's quite funny that so many efforts have been made to get to Mars and find something, anything, that indicates life might have been there, and all the while Venus has been sitting there closer to home, quietly saying "Er, Hello? I have something. That is, if anyone's interested at all..."

    Congrats to the astronomers for making the discovery, and to the team overall for doing their damndest to disprove the conclusions before releasing the work.

  9. Sceptic Tank Bronze badge

    James Maxwell

    Awwww, James Maxwell Telescope? I thought he was going to say James Webb.

  10. phuzz Silver badge

    Sky at Night

    For those in the UK, may I recommend the Sky at Night special about this discovery that was on BBC 4 last night.

    Just a whole bunch of incredibly excited scientists, being geeky. Wonderful stuff :)

  11. Fursty Ferret

    I, for one, welcome our new phosginian overlords.

    1. Clunking Fist Bronze badge

      <<image file: The Penguin.jpg >>

      Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    “They have to cope with an environment that is a billion times as acidic as anything on Earth,”

    I guess these so-called scientists have never tried Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps. Ouch!

  13. Graham Lockley

    Nuff said

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dan Dare doesn't know it ...

    ... but I love the Mekon

  15. Triggerfish

    Just thinking of Iain Banks

    Is this really the year to piss of dwellers?

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Just thinking of Iain Banks

      Or Arthur C Clarke.

  16. RLWatkins

    I'm sorry, but what exactly does this mean?

    "Bacteria on Earth capable of producing the gas would only have to work at 10 per cent of their maximum capacity to create the amount of phosphine seen on Venus...."

    *How many bacteria* "would only have to work at 10 per cent of their maximum capacity to create the amount of phosphine seen on Venus"? One? Ten? Ten duotrigintillion? All of them?

    Everyone who can type without thinking, raise your hands.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: I'm sorry, but what exactly does this mean?

      I can't raise my hands and type. I think.

    2. tfb Silver badge

      Re: I'm sorry, but what exactly does this mean?

      This is a direct quote from one of the sources, which doesn't give any further information, sadly. So it's not clear what it means but it's not a botch in this article, anyway.

    3. tfb Silver badge

      Re: I'm sorry, but what exactly does this mean?

      So I asked one of the people, and what it means is this: with a reasonable model of the atmosphere (which tells you the rate at which it is destroyed at various levels, the mixing time and so on) you can work out what the rate of emission from the surface would need to be to get the amounts that are observed in the upper atmosphere, which is 10^6 - 10^7 molecules / cm^2 / s. This about 10% of the surface flux you can get from terrestrial organisms.

  17. Paul Cooper


    Any reader of Anne MacCaffrey's DragonRider novels will remember that Phosphine is generated by dragons to make flame and destroy Thread! Maybe Venus is Pern?

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Dragonriders?

      I've not read the books, but I've seen the Rick and Morty summary.

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