The atmosphere of Venus as viewed in ultraviolet by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter in 1979.

The possibility of life on Venus is a subject of interest in astrobiology due to its proximity and similarities to Earth. To date, no definitive proof has been found of past or present life on Venus. Theories have decreased significantly since the early 1960s, when spacecraft began studying the planet and it became clear that its environment is extreme compared to Earth's. However, there is ongoing study as to whether life could have existed on the Venusian surface before a runaway greenhouse effect took hold, and related study as to whether a relict biosphere could persist high in the modern Venusian atmosphere.

Venus's location closer to the Sun than Earth and the extreme greenhouse effect raising temperatures on the surface to nearly 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F), and the atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth, make water-based life as we know it unlikely on the surface of the planet. However, a few scientists have speculated that thermoacidophilic extremophile microorganisms might exist in the temperate, acidic upper layers of the Venusian atmosphere.[1][2][3] In September 2020 research was published showing the presence of phosphine in the planet's atmosphere, a potential biosignature.[4][5][6]

Surface conditions

Main article: Observations and explorations of Venus

Because Venus is completely covered in clouds, human knowledge of surface conditions was largely speculative until the space probe era. Until the mid-20th century, the surface environment of Venus was believed to be similar to Earth, hence it was widely believed that Venus could harbor life. In 1870, the British astronomer Richard A. Proctor said the existence of life on Venus was impossible near its equator,[7] but possible near its poles. Science fiction writers were free to imagine what Venus might be like until the 1960s; see Venus in fiction. Among the speculations on Venus were that it had a jungle-like environment or that it had oceans of either petroleum or carbonated water.

However, microwave observations published by C. Mayer et al.[8] in 1958 indicated a high-temperature source (600 K). Strangely, millimetre-band observations made by A. D. Kuzmin indicated much lower temperatures.[9] Two competing theories explained the unusual radio spectrum, one suggesting the high temperatures originated in the ionosphere, and another suggesting a hot planetary surface.

In 1962, Mariner 2, the first successful mission to Venus, measured the planet's temperature for the first time, and found it to be "about 500 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit)."[10] Since then, increasingly clear evidence from various space probes showed Venus has an extreme climate, with a greenhouse effect generating a constant temperature of about 500 °C (932 °F) on the surface. The atmosphere contains sulfuric acid clouds. In 1968, NASA reported that air pressure on the Venusian surface was 75 to 100 times that of Earth.[11] This was later revised to 92 bars,[12] almost 100 times that of Earth and similar to that of more than 1,000 m (3,300 ft) deep in Earth's oceans. In such an environment, and given the hostile characteristics of the Venusian weather, life as we know it is highly unlikely to occur.

Past habitability potential

Scientists have speculated that if liquid water existed on its surface before the runaway greenhouse effect heated the planet, microbial life may have formed on Venus, but it may no longer exist.[13] Assuming the process that delivered water to Earth was common to all the planets near the habitable zone, it has been estimated that liquid water could have existed on its surface for up to 600 million years during and shortly after the Late Heavy Bombardment, which could be enough time for simple life to form, but this figure can vary from as little as a few million years to as much as a few billion.[14][15][16][17][18] Recent studies from September 2019 concluded that Venus may have had surface water and a habitable condition for around 3 billion years and may have been in this condition until 700 to 750 million years ago. If correct, this would have been an ample amount of time for the formation of life,[19] and for microbial life to evolve to become aerial.[20]

There has been very little analysis of Venusian surface material, so it is possible that evidence of past life, if it ever existed, could be found with a probe capable of enduring Venus's current extreme surface conditions,[21][22] although the resurfacing of the planet in the past 500 million years[23] means that it is unlikely that ancient surface rocks remain, especially those containing the mineral tremolite which, theoretically, could have encased some biosignatures.[22]

Suggested panspermia events

It has been speculated that life on Venus may have come to Earth through panspermia. "Current models indicate that Venus may have been habitable. Complex life may have evolved on the highly irradiated Venus, and transferred to Earth on asteroids. This model fits the pattern of pulses of highly developed life appearing, diversifying and going extinct with astonishing rapidity through the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, and also explains the extraordinary genetic variety which appeared over this period."[24]

Present habitability of its atmosphere

Atmospheric conditions

Although there is little possibility of existing life near the surface of Venus, the altitudes about 50 km (31 mi) above the surface have a mild temperature, and hence there are still some opinions in favor of such a possibility in the atmosphere of Venus.[25][26] The idea was first brought forward by German physicist Heinz Haber in 1950.[27] In September 1967, Carl Sagan and Harold Morowitz published an analysis of the issue of life on Venus in the journal Nature.[21]

In the analysis of mission data from the Venera, Pioneer Venus and Magellan missions, it was discovered that carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide were present together in the upper atmosphere. Venera also detected large amounts of toxic chlorine just below the Venusian cloud cover.[28] Carbonyl sulfide is difficult to produce inorganically,[26] but it can be produced by volcanism.[29] Sulfuric acid is produced in the upper atmosphere by the Sun's photochemical action on carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor.[30]

Solar radiation constrains the atmospheric habitable zone to between 51 km (65 °C) and 62 km (−20 °C) altitude, within the acidic clouds.[3] It has been speculated that clouds in the atmosphere of Venus could contain chemicals that can initiate forms of biological activity.[31][32] It has been speculated that any hypothetical microorganisms inhabiting the atmosphere, if present, could employ ultraviolet light (UV) emitted by the Sun as an energy source, which could be an explanation for the dark lines (called "unknown UV absorber") observed in the UV photographs of Venus.[33][34] The existence of this "unknown UV absorber" prompted Carl Sagan to publish an article in 1963 proposing the hypothesis of microorganisms in the upper atmosphere as the agent absorbing the UV light.[35]

Potential biomarkers

In August 2019, astronomers reported a newly discovered long-term pattern of UV light absorbance and albedo changes in the atmosphere of Venus and its weather, that is caused by "unknown absorbers" that may include unknown chemicals or even large colonies of microorganisms high up in the atmosphere.[36][37]

In January 2020, astronomers reported evidence that suggests Venus is currently volcanically active, and the residue from such activity may be a potential source of nutrients for possible microorganisms in the Venusian atmosphere.[38][39][40]

Research published in September 2020 indicated the detection of phosphine (PH3) in Venus's atmosphere that was not linked to any known abiotic method of production present or possible under Venusian conditions.[4][5][6] A molecule like phosphine is not expected to persist in the Venusian atmosphere since, under the ultraviolet radiation, it will eventually react with water and carbon dioxide. PH3 is associated with anaerobic ecosystems on Earth and may indicate life on anoxic exoplanets. Related studies suggested that the detected concentration of phosphine (20 ppb) in the clouds of Venus indicated a "plausible amount of life," and further, that the typical predicted biomass densities were "several orders of magnitude lower than the average biomass density of Earth’s aerial biosphere.”[41][42] As of 2019, no known abiotic process generates phosphine gas on terrestrial planets (as opposed to gas giants[43]) in appreciable quantities, so detectable amounts of phosphine could indicate life.[44][45]

See also

Possible life on other bodies of the Solar System