What might the discovery of a bio-signature on our sister planet mean for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
November 20th, 1952 brought about the first contact between the resident humanoids of Venus and their Earth based ambassador, George Adamski of Palomar Mountain, California. Adamski successfully established telepathic communication with the human-like Venusian representative, Orthon. At least this was the claim soon to become famous around the world.
Details of the inaugural meeting between Adamski and Orthon have now become a matter of ufology pop-culture history. The communion itself centred on dire warnings regarding Earth’s growing nuclear weapons programs. Upon his departure Orthon left behind a set of footprints which incorporated several mysterious symbols, the only trace of scientific evidence that any encounter with a Venusian had occurred.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, this claimed encounter replete with only scant objective evidence was not considered enough for the global academic community to announce the existence of life on our boiling, toxic-gas-shrouded, neighbour. A recent discovery involving collaborators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cardiff University indicates that while all we have of Orthon are footprints in our soil the direct fingerprints of life exist in the rolling gas clouds of Venus.
Now a new paper in Nature Astronomy, presents the argument that traces of phosphine detected in the atmosphere of Venus are almost certainly the result of anaerobic processes. On Earth phosphine gas is only known to be produced artificially in a lab, or as a result of microbes breaking down compounds and initiating the required chemical processes.
Phosphine is an incredibly stinky, noxious gas that is toxic to pretty much all oxygen loving organisms – sometimes produced and excreted during digestive processes. It is rare to find phosphine in any concentrations in our terrestrial environment, the exceptions being festering piles of excrement or swampy and boggy regions. Phosphine is a highly flammable type of ‘swamp gas’. The only places it has been found to be produced by natural inorganic processes is in the roiling hearts of the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter, where sufficient energy exists to break apart the molecular bonds required to produce this compound.
Returning to ufology history and pop-culture for just a moment, we cannot help but find it rather ironic that alien life might be discovered through detection of swamp gas. There is a running joke in the UFO topic that the various anomalous glowing objects, including structured craft, have all too often been written off as prosaic phenomena such as birds, sightings of the planet Venus and most notably, swamp gas. There is some wry humour in the idea that the very phenomena used to dismiss claims of alien life on Earth turns out to be the best indicator of life out in our solar system.
Inevitably the next stage will be scientists around the world trying to come up with possible ways that phosphine might be produced on Venus without the presence of life. MIT molecular astrophysicist Clara Sousa-Silva, and her collaborators, rigorously explored phosphine as a potential alien bio-signature in a 2019 paper for the journal Astrobiology. Their finding was that it is a very compelling indicator for simple organisms, having no known false positives.
It is perhaps especially appropriate to find that the detection of phosphine came about essentially by accident during an experiment testing the biosignature seeking capabilities of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. It took six months of rigorous analysis, and a follow up observation from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, for the team to be satisfied they really had detected light absorption at the correct wavelength to indicate the anomalous gas signature.
Venus is a barren hellscape of a world by our Earth standards and it seems very unlikely even microbes could survive the incredible heat and pressure at surface level. Logic suggests organisms present in the remote temperate period of the planet’s development successfully evolved to adapt to the runaway greenhouse effect, the resulting extremophiles later migrating into the rising gas clouds as conditions worsened. Today a narrow band of the atmosphere retains a moderate temperature at between 30F (-1.11C) to 200F (93.33C), this stretches between 48 and 60 kilometres up. It just so happens the phosphine is found in this very same layer of the Venusian atmosphere.
There will be plenty of articles published on all the minute details of this discovery and the scientific implications. It is not my field and I do not want to get bogged down in the many specific technical details which can be better explained by the academic scientists involved. My interest is how this news will impact the thinking of scientists towards alien life more generally. For example, life on Venus should cause some academics to seriously rethink the long-ignored detection of microbial life on Mars back in 1976.
NASA’s 1976 Viking mission to Mars was unique in being the only one that included equipment designed to identify life. Why no other mission did this we can only wonder. On July 30, 1976, the first results from detection experimentation was received, it was positive. As the experiment progressed further four positive results were concluded and these were supported by five varied controls, with results coming from both the twin Viking spacecraft situated around 4,000 miles apart. The data strongly indicated microbial processes giving off gas signatures. The more recent Mars Rovers have even imaged what looks like lichens or related fungi growing on rocks.
It seems likely to me we are at the start of a landslide of confirmations in the subject of extraterrestrial life, might these also help to modify the topics of extraterrestrial intelligence and even possibly the likelihood of visitors to our planet. Will scientists change their ultra-hostile stance on anomalous visitations involving so-called ‘UFOs’ if life is found to be common to all known rocky planets?