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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Vital sign

Extraterrestrial life could be much nearer than anticipated — on Venus, which has the most hostile surface in the solar system.

By: Editorial | September 16, 2020 12:44:26 am
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Venus is hot. Its surface is so hot that lead melts, and space probes landing on it must click pictures quickly and transmit them home before the works seize up. And yet, the planet’s atmosphere bears the signature of life. A paper in ‘Nature Astronomy’ — which is preliminary because the pandemic interrupted research — has found phosphine in the atmosphere, one of the byproducts of anaerobic respiration.

This is not the same as saying that Venus has life, because phosphine is produced by several natural processes, including volcanic activity, and the volcanoes of Venus contribute a little something to the greenhouse effect which keeps the planet hot. Besides, it is surmised that Venus once had a comparatively mild aspect – not quite a land overflowing with milk and honey, but one on whose surface water could have remained liquid, and supportive of life. Since the decay time of phosphine is unknown, what has been found could be the signature of life that is long-dead. On the other hand, it exists in such abundance that physical processes cannot explain it, and the best bet would be airborne microbes, flying high in the clouds rich in sulphuric acid and carbonic acid above the hot surface.

The mystery can be set to rest only by probes flying in the atmosphere, and Nasa is being castigated for going gaga over Mars and neglecting Venus for decades. The USSR, which diligently sent out Venera probes to compensate, cannot do so any more for existential reasons. But interestingly, India already has a presence on Venus. One of the prominent features of the planet is Lakshmi Planum, a plateau of smooth lava flows, named for our goddess of wealth. But it was named thus only because the Greek and Roman pantheons were exhausted. Whoever said the universe was fair?

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