Astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus: hints there may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet. Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venusian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday's journal Nature Astronomy. Several outside experts – and the study authors themselves – agreed this is tantalizing but said it is far from the first proof of life on another planet. They said it doesn't satisfy the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967. "It's not a smoking gun," said study co-author David Clements, an Imperial College of London astrophysicist.
NASA shortlists missions to map the surface of Venus, identify gases in its atmosphere, look for an ocean on Triton, and hunt for magma flows on Io. The four shortlisted projects will each get a $3 million NASA grant for a 9 month feasibility study before two will become actual missions and go to space. The missions are part of the NASA's Discovery Program that invites scientists and engineers to form a team to design a planetary science project NASA says the goal of the program is to'transform our understanding of some of the solar system's most active and complex worlds'. The four shortlisted missions are called DAVINCI, Io Volcano Observer, TRIDENT and VERITAS with two going to Venus and two to the gas giants. The NASA Discovery Program aims to provide opportunities for smaller scale planetary science missions and has been doing so since 1992.
A whole generation of space scientists are mourning what may be the lost opportunity of a lifetime: Earlier this month, when NASA compiled its roster of planetary probes to be launched over the next six years, Venus was left off the list -- again. According to Paul Voosen of Science Magazine, it could be another decade before NASA again turns its sights on a planet that for a brief time was the most actively explored in the Solar System. Given that the last U.S. probe reached Venus in 1994, that would make for a 30-year gap. "We're losing a whole generation," geophysicist Patrick McGovern told Science. Venus fell off the exploration map for several reasons.
Venus has long played second fiddle to its redder, smaller, and more distant sibling. Given how inhospitable we've learned Venus to be, we've spent the majority of the last century pinning some of our biggest hopes of finding signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars. That all changed this week. On Monday it was announced that a peculiar gas called phosphine had been spotted in the clouds above Venus. The gas is produced by microbes here on Earth, and after most known nonbiological processes were ruled out, the discovery has renewed hopes that there's life on Venus.
Nicknamed Earth's evil twin, Venus seems like everything our planet is not: scorching hot, dried out and covered in toxic clouds. But a mere one or two billion years ago, these two wayward siblings might have been more alike. New computer simulations suggest that early Venus might have looked a lot like our home planet – and it might even have been habitable. How did it get so different from Earth when it seems likely to have started so similarly?" "The question becomes richer when you consider astrobiology, the possibility that Venus and Earth were very similar during the time of the origin of life on Earth."