The quest for life on planets other than ours has long held the attention of scientists. But most of their efforts have been unable to conclusively say if life really exists beyond Earth. From Moon to Mars, scientists have launched many probes and missions to uncover the mysteries. Venus, one of the most inhospitable planets in the solar system, too, has intrigued them. Venus has an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and a surface hot enough to melt lead, which makes it near-impossible to protect life as we know it.
Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales, however, created a flutter last year when they discovered significant sources of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. They claimed the colourless and odourless gas, which occurs naturally from the breakdown of organic matter on Earth, could be a sign of life on our neighbouring planet. But this hypothesis has been called into question by others, who say the planet’s clouds are blanketing Venus in droplets of sulfuric acid which can burn a hole through human skin.
Still, Venus has been the most reliable candidate to harbour life beyond Earth. A new study by MIT scientists now says that these clouds could be a home to life. The study claims that the sulfuric acid on the planet could be neutralised by the presence of ammonia present in its atmosphere. Scientists have repeatedly observed anomalies in Venus’ atmosphere. The most puzzling of them is the presence of ammonia, a gas that was tentatively detected in the 1970s but has no known reason to be there.
The MIT scientists say ammonia is capable of chemical reactions that could turn Venus’ clouds into a hospitable place. “Our model predicts that the clouds are not entirely made of sulfuric acid, but are partially composed of ammonium salt slurries, which may be the result of biological production of ammonia in cloud droplets,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal . In conclusion, they said, “life could be making its own environment on Venus.”
While these findings are exciting, they could only be confirmed if a probe is sent to Venus. Fortunately, NASA and ESA are planning to do so in the years ahead.