Life off Earth: maybe some facts at last?

Life on another planet? (Or to be precise, in the clouds above it?) A news story doesn’t get a lot bigger than the detection of possible life indicators in the clouds of Venus. It potentially suggests that life is abundant in and beyond the solar system.

But for me, some of today’s great journalism (there’s too much of it to link without accusations of bias) on the matter misses one vital point. Existing research on life elsewhere in the universe is a bit like someone who has only ever heard and spoken Danish writing a book on the world’s languages. It’s full of anthropomorphic “findings” such as the necessity for a Moon, a magnetic field, some specific chemical elements, or an ionosphere.

With luck, any discovery of life in the Venusian clouds will moderate this train of thought by adding some facts. While this life, if it is there, may have originated on the (then more hospitable) surface of Venus, it would be a true revolution in our understanding of life to prove that it could now live entirely in the atmosphere.

The first result of all this hubbub is a predictable one -a call for spacecraft, balloons and other forms of life-hunting technology to be sent asap to the planet. But remember that this all grows out of the detection of phosphine (a gas PH3 related to ammonia, NH3) in the atmosphere of Venus using Earth-based telescopes. The scientists are clear that there could be a non-bio explanation. But maybe a hunt for other possible markers visible from Earth might be the smart move before we fuel up the rockets?

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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