Did NASA Miss Evidence of Life on Venus in 1978?
Scientists are still coming to terms with the slim possibility that life exists in the clouds of Venus. It turns out the inhospitable planet has traces of phosphine in its atmosphere, and that often points to living organisms. This new analysis got biochemist Rakesh Mogul curious about past scans of Venus. He examined NASA data collected in the late 1970s, and the analysis suggests the original team may have missed a phosphine signal all those years ago.
The recent study in Nature Astronomy was a blockbuster in large part due to its thoroughness. The team consisting of researchers from Cardiff University, MIT, and other institutions reported the presence of phosphine and also explored numerous ways it could be produced on Venus. While there are some abiotic processes that can create phosphine molecules, they rely on extremely high temperature and pressure like you’d find in gas giants. Venus should not be able to make phosphine without life.
Upon hearing the news, Mogul and his co-authors went back to the studies released decades ago following the 1978 Pioneer 13 mission. This NASA probe deployed an instrument called the Large Probe Neutral Mass Spectrometer (LNMS) in Venus’ atmosphere. The LNMS sampled the atmosphere and ran it through a mass spectrometer, which is a common way to identify chemical compounds.
Mogul noted that the original researchers didn’t discuss phosphate-bearing molecules in their studies. Looking at the raw data again, the scientists spotted signals that looked very much like phosphine. It’s difficult to say for sure because the LNMS was not designed to detect these molecules. If the signals identified as probably phosphine are indeed the genuine article, the concentrations would be a rough match for the Nature Astronomy study. Mogul’s team also spotted several signals that could indicate chlorine, oxygen, and hydrogen peroxide. These are also compounds associated with life, but they could also have arisen in other ways.
This analysis of retro NASA data has been released on the preprint arXiv database, so it has not undergone peer review. However, this is far from the only operation to take a closer look at Venus. With all the interest around Venus currently, we should get a steady stream of news on this topic until someone can either confirm or refute the claims made in the study published last month.
The ESA, NASA, and even the private spaceflight firm Rocket Lab have missions that could shed light on what’s going on in the clouds of Venus. It might be a few years until we know for sure, but fingers crossed for floating aliens.