From Sky News comes a new article, Signs of alien life detected on Venus, that could stand astrobiology on its head. I really mean that. We’ve been looking into finding life, or even life-fostering precursor conditions and chemistry, amongst the planets of the solar system for decades. Science had considered most every planet known as a possibility for extraterrestrial life, with a great focus on Venus and Mars. Pop culture fed the speculation, from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, or movies about Martians and Venusians invading or otherwise attempting contact with us provincial Earthlings. A lot of that science fiction was based on poorly-understood and sparse scientific fact.
As we began sending probes to scour the solar system for data, it became apparent that Earth was a fortunate place indeed. Mars has turned out to be quite cold most of the time, and as a result quite arid. And the thin Martian atmosphere makes for an almost unimpeded wash of ultraviolent radiation, which most effectively kills and sterilizes most biology that we can imagine. There is water ice there, however, or so it is very strongly inferred, and permafrost may hold life below the surface.
As inhospitable as Mars may be, our up-close findings for Venus seemed much, much worse. Possessing an acidic, high-pressure atmosphere, fierce temperatures, and high-velocity winds, nothing that we can currently construct is really suitable for us to mount an investigation. The Russians have the best record here, with the Venera 13 lander lasting only 127 minutes before succumbing to the environment. Really, the accelerated thermodynamic and chemical environment seems completely incompatible with the development of life.
As a result, we have expended a lot of effort developing our technologies to survey Mars as the best possibility for finding extraterrestrial proof of life. Venus has simply been considered out of the question, or such a distant question that Mars exploration seems many magnitudes more likely to produce results.
That is, until this new study found an atmospheric trace of phosphine gas, a known byproduct of anaerobic life, which doesn’t base its metabolism on oxygen respiration. We have such life in extreme environments here on Earth, so we know there is a real biological mechanism that exists. What is really interesting is that there have been theories of atmospheric-borne life on Venus, but as more of an extreme theory. For those subscribing to the idea, this finding has to be electrifying.
Here’s the thing, though: Let’s say we now have this new, strong evidence from afar, you would want to test the data directly. How does one do that?
People can’t go to Venus and look for samples on the surface, that’s a certainty for a long time to come. Even the atmosphere is going to be difficult to assay, and you’d likely need to sample multiple times to make sure you found what you’re looking for. You also don’t know how stable the life is, or even those phosphine products, and if you bottle up a sample you don’t know what you’re going have when it gets back to home. And in the more speculative realm, do you even want to send it home? Would the sampled material pose some sort of danger?
People need to go to Venus to study the matter, but they can’t land there, because it’s suicide. You would need to establish a research station, to stay above the fray, as it were. What I find particularly attractive about this idea is that we have almost a quarter-century of experience in conducting space station operations on the ISS. To really explore the issue of Venusian life as is hinted exists, we would need a true station in orbit there. Not a Gateway, as makes some sense for planned Moon/Mars missions, but a real station. Scientific facilities, living quarters, and extensive enough logistics to support the effort fully enough to dig deeply into the questions that we know and others that we don’t.
This news excites me more than any space news in quite some time. We can leverage our experience to do something truly epic.