A Visit With Our Neighbor: Life and Survival on Venus

Astronomers thought they had ruled out virtually every planet in our solar system for indications of life, until earlier this year, when they finally turned their telescopes to Earth’s closest neighbor: Venus.

Owen Hite, Reporter

For years, astronomers have gazed into our sky, hoping to find some sign of life to prove that humans are not alone in this universe. Their curiosity has led them to the dusty valleys of the red planet, and even to frozen glaciers atop the surfaces of Jupiter’s moons orbiting over 390 million miles away. Astronomers thought they had ruled out virtually every planet in our solar system for indications of life, until earlier this year, when they finally turned their telescopes to Earth’s closest neighbor: Venus.

On September 14, a group of researchers published their findings on one of the most exciting and complex discoveries of the century: the chance of life just outside of our planet’s backyard. Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, this has no relation to tiny green men abducting humans and bringing them back to their extraterrestrial home. Instead, it is a more fascinating discovery that should be evaluated as an alternative to Earth that can ensure our population’s survival. Large quantities of phosphine―a compound produced by bacteria and in human digestion―were discovered within Venus’ atmosphere. While gas may not seem that impressive, the quantity of it in the atmosphere is. Typically, this gas would break down when exposed to light, so in order to maintain large amounts on a planet that receives much more sun than Earth, the phosphine must be continuously replaced, suggesting that life is currently thriving in the atmosphere.

Now, before humans conclude that they can immediately board a spacecraft and jet away to otherworldly utopia, they should be informed of the risks. Most prominently, Venus has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, measuring above 850 degrees Fahrenheit. This comes as a result of a process called the runaway greenhouse effect, which is an extreme version of climate change, in which atmospheric gases trap heat at such a magnitude that they prevent a planet from cooling. As a result, there is no water on Venus. Additionally, the planet’s atmosphere is roughly 90 times as dense as on Earth, which means that your body would feel as if it is weighed down by 3000 feet of water when you walk around. Even though you would be able to jump slightly higher on Venus with a gravity 92 percent as strong as on Earth, your movement speed would be significantly reduced by the thickness of your surroundings. To cap things off on Venus, lightning storms are prevalent, violent winds ravage the planet at high elevations, and clouds are made of sulfuric acid (a corrosive compound that dissolves metal and human tissue).

However, these hazards do not exclude it from habitability. Though living on the surface may be impractical, that’s not where life is predicted to be. It is in the atmosphere, closer to the spatial regions in which astronauts already live aboard the international space station. Even though it may not be on a firm soil surface, it’s evident that we have a place to escape to if our planet continues to encounter the same greenhouse gas pollution that affects Venus. Escaping to Venus doesn’t have to be a unanimous commitment either: the planet is so close to Earth that round trips can be executed in far less than a year if given the proper amount of rocket fuel. This means that restocking supplies and food from a home base on Earth is both plausible and probable. Essentially, life on a new planet doesn’t have to be immediate, it just needs to be possible.

Undoubtedly, Venus is quite a perilous planet, yet the discovery of life–and the possibility of human colonization–should not continue to be overlooked. There could be life in its skies, possibly even creatures attempting to do exactly what humans will need to do soon: fleeing their home planet for the chance of survival. While the surface of our planet that we acknowledge as the habitable anomaly of our universe continues to waste away–tornadoes ravaging our valleys, fires consuming our mountains, and hurricanes battering our coasts–life awaits in the atmosphere of Venus, floating, thriving, surviving. If we are lucky enough for this discovery to be affirmed, our neighbors may already be closer than we think.