Scientists looking for alien life close to home have been focusing on Mars, but a new discovery on Venus suggests we’ve been looking in the wrong place. An international team from MIT, Cardiff University, and other institutions has identified a compound called phosphine in Venus’ murky atmosphere that is strongly associated with life. This could mean unfathomable life forms are floating around in the clouds of Venus. It could also be the result of currently unknown geophysical processes, but hey, cloud aliens would be a lot more fun.
The team made this discovery while scanning Venus using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile. As you might know, Venus has a hellish atmosphere with sea-level pressure around 100 times higher than Earth. The average surface temperature is a scorching 872 Fahrenheit (467 Celsius). The air is mostly carbon dioxide with a sprinkling of sulfuric acid clouds — all around, a bad vacation spot.
There is, however, a narrow temperate band of the planet’s atmosphere between 48 and 60 kilometers. There, the temperature oscillates between 30 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s where the researchers spotted phosphine. On rocky planets like Earth, Mars, and Venus, phosphine comes from biological processes — and indeed, there’s a little phosphine in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s also present in Jupiter’s atmosphere, but it forms deep down where temperatures far exceed anything you’ll find on Venus. That’s why phosphine is more notable than other potential biomarkers.
There are only a few possibilities here. One, there are floating aliens on Venus, which is clearly the most interesting option. We might also find that there is a previously unknown chemical process that produces phosphine on Venus. That’s less exciting than floating aliens, but still interesting. Since this is new research, it’s also possible the team got it wrong and future observations will be unable to replicate the finding.
If you’ll go with me on this flight of fancy, any form of life that lives in the clouds above Venus’ suffocating surface would really live up to the term “alien.” It’s difficult to imagine how these organisms would live — would we even recognize it as life up close? If there actually are floating aliens on Venus, that would have incredible implications for the nature of life elsewhere in the universe. If life can survive on Venus, it can survive almost anywhere.