Life on Venus could hide in its strange clouds

Venus' clouds.

A team of researchers modeling the Venusian atmosphere found data that could help explain the confusing chemistry of the planet’s clouds. The results promote the possibility of life in Venus atmosphere, a still controversial idea that will be explored by several planned missions to the burning planet.

Venus is the second planet from the Sun, making it much warmer than Earth. In addition to the planet’s heat, Venus is a dry, rocky wasteland dominated by volcanoes and toxic sulfuric acid clouds. The cloud layer – about 12 miles thick – covers the planet’s surface from terrestrial observers most of the time, and recently that has been in the spotlight as a possible hiding place for foreign life.

Recent research modeled these clouds in greater depth, and the researchers found that the clouds on the planet are not full composed of sulfuric acid but has a certain amount of ammonium salt sludge mixed in. The team’s study was published i Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our model predicts that the clouds are not made exclusively of concentrated sulfuric acid, but that the cloud droplets are partially neutralized. Our model postulates that the compound that neutralizes the acid in the clouds is ammonia, ”said Janusz Petkowski, an astrobiologist at MIT and co-author of the recent study, in an email. “The source of ammonia is unknown, but may be the result of biological production of ammonia in cloud droplets. As a result of the neutralization of the acid, the clouds are no more acidic than some extreme terrestrial environments that contain life.”

The latest work builds on much talked about research published last year in Nature, which claimed to discover phosphine gas in the Venusian atmosphere. (The researchers behind the new paper were also among the authors of the phosphine paper.) Phosphine is produced by microorganisms that do not need oxygen to survive, so the presence of the gas was a surprising, exciting sign that something biological might be happening in the clouds. Found was controversial; other researchers have said that the presumed phosphine signal really was only sulfur dioxide, mens others have suggested active volkanoer, not life, could be responsible.

“No life we ​​know of could survive in the Venus droplets,” said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT and co-author of the new study, in an institute. release. “But the point is, there might be some life there, and it’s changing its environment so it’s habitable.”

The new paper did not focus on phosphine but rather some inexplicable chemical signatures of Venus clouds. Year observations have indicated more water vapor and sulfur dioxide than expected. Ammonia, the researchers believed, could explain these anomalies.

“Ammonia should not be on Venus,” Seager added. “It has hydrogen attached to it, and there is very little hydrogen around. Any gas that does not belong in its environment is automatically suspicious of being made of life.”

DAVINCI +.

That models showed that if microorganisms were on Venus and producing ammonia, oxygen would be released as a by-product. Furthermore, the ammonia (which is alkaline) would neutralize the drops of sulfuric acid in the clouds, making them somewhat habitable. While all this work was done with models, future space probe missions could help us get some answers about what really is happens in the clouds.

These missions are NASA’s VERITAS and DAVINCI + missions, ESA’s EnVision orbiter and (perhaps) the proposed privately funded Venus Life Finder missions, which Seager and Petkowski are working on. The latter is the only one with the basic purpose of exploring the possibility of alien life on Venus, but the space agency’s missions are also likely to gather some information on the subject. Of these three, DAVINCI + is the only mission that actually enters Venus’s the atmosphere and try it as the spacecraft descends to the surface of the planet.

If life of any kind was found outside of Earth – either petrified on the surface of Mars, thrive in the clouds on Venus, or swim in sea ​​of ​​an icy moon-that would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries ever. But there is a long, uncertain road ahead before such claims can be made.

More: The 7 Strangest Things About Venus, Hell Planet

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