Not being a fan of Russia or anything else associated with those assholes, I cynically laughed a few weeks back when the chief of the Russian space program staked a claim on the planet Venus. It's just another in a long list of nationalistic posturings by Russia wanting to bolster its confidence and global street cred. For example a few years back guys in a deep diving Russian submersible planted a tiny version of their national flag on the seafloor directly under the North Pole ice sheet. The Russian press release went on about that accomplishment being equal setting foot on the moon.
“We think that Venus is a Russian planet, so we shouldn't lag behind.” Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space corporation, Rocosmos said about an upcoming mission to the hellhole planet. Why the love of a planet encased in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide where it rains sulfuric acid and the surface temperature can melt lead?
Well giving the devil its due, Russia is the only country that landed a working probe on the surface and was able to take pictures. Now the downside is also true in that Russia is batting next to zero getting any of their other probes to Mars, a much more interesting and “habitable” place. And while they did get some impressive firsts in the early days of manned space flight, their plans to get to the moon literally blew up on the launchpad so many times, the Soviets pulled a Chernobyl-level classification on their efforts that lasted to well after the fall of communism. So “claiming” Venus sort of makes sense for a people who have only limited success beyond the moon and never left eighteenth-century imperialism behind.
Understand I'm not here to cast shade on the Russians. Truth be told I find Americans almost as equally obnoxious and ignorant with the United States only saving grace being that we haven't quite fallen into the authoritarian trap Russian finds itself. There's still a chance we Americans could pull our collective heads out of our asses and and be decent citizens of this planet.
Given the conditions on Venus my interest in the planet was pretty nonexistent. Now there is talk among planetary science types that as “recently” as seven-hundred-million years ago Venus might have had Earth-like conditions including oceans of liquid water. But something went sideways and its atmosphere became increasingly warmed by the greenhouse effect to the point global temperatures went critical and the water boiled away.
Over the decades a bunch of science fiction authors have wrote about terraforming the planet back to something livable. But to the best of my meager knowledge most scientific estimates of the Goldilocks Zone -the region of the solar system where liquid water could exist under certain conditions- puts Venus beyond the inner edge. Meaning to me at least that Venus is a total write off for manned exploration and settlement.
Well, shit got weird on September 14 of this year when scientists at two different radio telescope sites detected the compound phosphine in Venus's atmosphere about fifty-five kilometers above the surface. Turns out phosphine is a possible signature of life on other planets because anaerobic bacteria here on Earth produce phosphine as part of their biological processes.
In short, anaerobic organisms do NOT require oxygen for growth and may react negatively to the presence of it in their environment. Which is good for any possible bacteria-like organisms floating high up in the atmosphere of Venus because the planet has only tiny trace amounts. No, anaerobic bacteria are not some speculative or rare lifeform, in fact humans have quite of lot of the little buggers living in their gastrointestinal tract. When they get uppity humans can develop such illnesses at appendicitis, diverticulitis, or perforations of the bowel.
For the unenlightened individuals among us who like border walls, they're may be potentially alien invaders living in your gut. Let's see your deranged orange messiah build a wall and deport them back to their shithole birthplace.
Back on a serious note, the reason the astrobiology types are even mentioning anaerobic processes being responsible for the presence of phosphine is because Venus's harsh environment would normally break it apart. So some source is obviously replenishing the phosphine and while here on Earth that would mean bacteria, the possibility of it being something other than life can't be ruled out. However, we have no idea what non-biological process might account for the supply of phosphine. Obviously, further observations and even mission to Venus will be required to determine what exactly is going on in the clouds of Venus.
Going back to the days when the conditions on Venus was discovered, serious science types speculated even then about lifeforms floating in the clouds well above the hellish regions close to the surface. Somewhere around fifty-five kilometers above the surface of the planet temperatures fall to more livable levels. The sulfuric acid rain Venus is also famous for occurs below that level as well.
So incredibly, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that we could have a complex biosphere in the clouds of Venus. One scientist even speculated about jellyfish-like creatures lazily drifting in wind doing their own jellyfish-like things.
It also has to be mentioned that given the relative closeness of Venus, and Mars for that matter, any life found on those planets could have originated any of the others. That goes for Earth as well, meaning that life here might have sprung up on the other two and due to a volcanic eruption or massive impact threw life-bearing rocks into space that eventually fell to the surface. From there that primitive life did what all life does and eat, reproduce, and spread out.
Venus is not the only planet in our solar system where life might be floating in the clouds. In Carl Sagan's original Cosmos television series back in the 1980s, he speculated on lifeforms living in the clouds of Jupiter. But I believe he admitted that such a thing was highly unlikely given the chaotic and harsh conditions believed to exist in that environment.
More to the point back in the 1980s, the most accepted opinion was that the rest of our solar system was completely devoid of life. Since then there is considerable evidence to suggest that the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the underground regions of Mars, and now Venus have a strong chance to harbor lifeforms. If I had my way, and a couple of trillion dollars within easy reach, we would be finding out as fast as possible.
CNN.com September 18, 2020
Nature.com October 2, 2020