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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Life on Venus? MIT study says Venusian clouds may have habitable pockets

“We do not know what kind or type of life we will find. If there is life we do expect it to be simple single-celled life forms," says Dr. Sara Seager

By: Science Desk | Kochi |
December 30, 2021 2:23:10 pm
MIT-Venus-Clouds microbesArtist’s conception of the aerial biosphere in the cloud layers of Venus’ atmosphere. In this picture, hypothetical microbial life in the clouds of Venus resides inside protective cloud particles and is carried by winds around the planet. (J. Petkowska via MIT)

Last year, the discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus triggered global excitement about the possibility of life on our neighbouring planet. Another study published this month in PNAS supports the long-standing idea that life could exist in Venus’ clouds.

The authors list various chemical pathways by which life forms could neutralise the acidic environment on Venus’ clouds and create habitable pockets.

In the 1970s, ammonia was detected in the planet’s clouds by the Venera 8 and Pioneer Venus probes and the source of this ammonia remained an unsolved mystery. In the new study, the researchers propose that biological origin is the most plausible explanation for ammonia. They say that meteorite strikes, lightning, or volcanic eruptions cannot produce huge amounts of ammonia observed by the probes.

They also modelled several chemical processes to show that if ammonia is indeed present, the gas would set off various chemical reactions. These reactions “would neutralise surrounding droplets of sulfuric acid and could also explain most of the anomalies observed in Venus’ clouds,” explains a release.

The corresponding author of the study Dr Sara Seager, from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains in an email to indianexpress.com: “We do not know what kind or type of life we will find. If there is some life we do expect it to be simple single-celled life forms…Life may have originated on Venus as it did on Earth, assuming that Venus had water oceans early on. As Venus heated up and lost its oceans, life would have had to migrate to and evolve to live in the clouds.”

She adds that we need targeted missions to search for signs of life and life itself. “We need missions that drop probes or balloons in the Venus atmosphere directly to study the cloud particles as if there is life it likely resides inside the cloud droplets,” Dr Seager says.

The team is currently working on a privately-funded focused mission to Venus with a targeted launch date of 2023 as well as MIT’s Venus Life Finder missions which aim to study Venus’ cloud particles and continue where the previous missions from nearly four decades ago left off.

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