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LIFE ON VENUS?


When I was young, my grandfather introduced me to science fiction. My first foray into the genre was in the form of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classics, like the John Carter of Mars series, Tanar of Pellucidar, and Carson of Venus. I was also a fan of Burroughs' Tarzan series, but the Ape man fell under the Adventure genre, so for the purposes of this blog post, it doesn’t count. But Carson of Venus does. Burroughs wove an incredible world existing under the shroud of Venus’ cloud cover. I reveled in the adventures of Carson Napier, trapped on an exotic and alien planet, fighting just to stay alive in such a hostile environment.

But alas, my imagination was dashed when on March 1, 1982, the Soviet probe Venera 13 made a successful landing on the surface of Venus, and sent back a lone photograph before it succumb to Venus’ harsh environment. There were no lush, tropical jungles inhabited by strange alien beasts, nor the Vepajans or Zani. Just a harsh, barren rocky terrain with a surface temperature of 867 degrees F. So much for Carson and his adventures on Venus.

Fast forward to September 14, 2020. The Royal Astronomical Society announced they may have found life on Venus. Was Edgar Rice Burroughs right after all? Not exactly. The team of scientists, led by Professor Jane Greaves, held a press briefing where they explained their findings. What they found was evidence of Phosphine in the upper atmosphere. Phosphine is a gas that is produced by living microbes, hence the possibility of life in the atmosphere of Venus. Since the conditions on Venus are extremely harsh, the only place Phosphine (and possibly life) could exist is in a habitable zone of the atmosphere, between 45-60 km altitude. However, before they broke out the champagne (as so many are prematurely wont to do), they looked at the possibility of whether or not phosphine could be produced by other, non-organic methods. They studied photochemical processes, chemical processes such as thermodynamics and rock chemistry, and exotic processes such as lightning and meteorite strikes. None of these processes could produce phosphine in the amounts they observed.

Still no champagne. One of the team, Professor Sarah Seager, said, “We are not claiming we have found life on Venus. We are claiming we have detected phosphine gas whose existence is a mystery – either new chemistry or possibly life production.” Phosphine is produced here on earth by microbes in our atmosphere. Does that mean the same thing could be happening on Venus? Well folks, the verdict is still out. More study is needed, and the team suggested that a future probe sent to Venus could gather samples for study, which could answer the question yay or nay.

The problem is trying to gather definitive data from over 89 million miles away. Telescopes are fine, but they are limited in the information they provide. The James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama array in Chile were used for this study. Powerful as they are, there is still only so much they can reveal. Until a spacecraft does a flyby of Venus’ atmosphere and scoops up an actual sample, I think we’re stuck with speculation.

There have been numerous probes sent to Mars to answer the “life on other planets” question, and the latest, Mars Perseverance Rover, is on its way to the Red Planet in an attempt to provide an answer. It will search for microbial life and the possibility of ancient life on Mars, and even includes a small helicopter drone to fly around in a “Wright Brothers” first flight on Mars scenario. But discover life on Mars? Like Venus, the jury is still out. I doubt very much that microbes built the face on Mars (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

Is there life on Venus? Mars? Anywhere else in our solar system, let alone the rest of the galaxy? Don’t know. Nobody does. We’ll have to continue to wait for the answer to that question. Scientists say that if they can find liquid water on an earth-sized planet elsewhere in the galaxy, then life is a distinct possibility. However, there are over 300 criteria necessary for carbon based life to exist. Water is only the first in a long list of necessary conditions.

For now, we’re still stuck with an unanswerable question. Only time will tell if that changes.

Until then, Carson of Venus and Carter of Mars will have to remain in the realm of science fiction.

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