In a press conference today, scientists from the Royal Astronomical Society announced a potentially revolutionary scientific discovery: they have discovered the presence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, suggesting the possible presence of biological life. Phosphine is a gas that is a well-known biosignature, which means that it is only present when a part of life is also present – and furthermore it is a gas of which at least on earth no false positives are known, which are believed to be wrong is phosphine and not a result of biological life.
This discovery is not a sure sign that extraterrestrial life exists, although it can be spun by some outlets and observers. The scientists involved in the discovery all admit this, realizing that it may be that our understanding of how phosphine works, especially outside of the Earth̵
However, this is definitely one of the most promising signs that life beyond Earth could exist, especially given the amount of phosphine that had to be present to trigger detection in the first place – and more importantly, the discovery was made here inside ours own galaxy. That life could exist in the Venusian atmosphere would be a strong indicator that life in general is much more abundant and common throughout the galaxy than many previously thought.
Venus itself is hardly a place where we would find life by traditional standards – surface temperatures approach 900 degrees. However, the upper atmosphere could potentially support anaerobic microorganisms – similar to algae warming. This theory has already been proposed to account for what appear to be UV-absorbing spots in the clouds that we can observe over Venus.
The potential confirmation of the presence of microbial life in the clouds above Venus poses a number of potential challenges – and not just technical ones. There are ethical concerns as well, as any attempt to physically collect cloud material over the planet could actually disrupt and affect native life forms that would exist. Scientists are very careful not to bring potential biocontaminants from Earth into extraterrestrial environments. This would likely require a lot of debate and ultimately very careful collection or observation methods.