Possible signs of life detected in the atmosphere of Venus

Although the conditions on the surface of Venus are extremely harsh, and unlikely to support life, scientists have speculated since the 1960s about the possibility of life in the atmosphere of the planet.  

At a height between around 50 to 60 km above the surface, pressures and temperatures are low enough that microorganisms could exist, floating around in the Venusian clouds.

Today, a group of scientists, led by Jane Greaves at Cardiff University, have announced that they have found phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus.  So far, the only way this gas has been found to be produced is by microbes that live in oxygen-free environments.  So it isn’t conclusive proof of life but since the phosphine has been found within the habitable layer in the atmosphere, it does give strong evidence for life beyond Earth.

The discoveries were made using ground based telescopes: ALMA, in Chile, and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope, in Hawaii. 

For more information about the announcement, go to ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/news/hints-life-venus  or watch the special BBC Sky At Night programme, broadcast at 10.30pm tonight. (The BBC News website also has a good video about it here)

Resources for primary schools:

Are We Alone? and Is There Anyone Out There? contain multiple classroom activities that link primary science to the study of life on other planets.

Resources for secondary schools:

Learn more about one of the telescopes, ALAMA, and Venus Express, the last European mission to the planet Venus.  

You can also watch the Royal Astronomical Societies announcement here, or a great 1 minute introduction video on their twitter account. 


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