53 votes

Phosphine discovered in Venus' atmosphere, which could be evidence of microbial life

36 comments

  1. [6]
    emdash
    Link
    This hasn't technically been announced yet. My understanding is that MIT have a press embargo out until tomorrow, but somehow something leaked and it got picked up for a little bit. TL;DR:...

    This hasn't technically been announced yet. My understanding is that MIT have a press embargo out until tomorrow, but somehow something leaked and it got picked up for a little bit.

    TL;DR: Microbial life my exist in the temperate portion of Venus' atmosphere based on the detection of the biosignature phosphine, which to our knowledge, can only be produced by living organisms.

    14 votes
    1. [3]
      Amarok
      Link Parent
      I wonder if we could manage a probe that could do an atmospheric flyby, capture some of the gas, and get it back here without making a crater somewhere. Life is interesting, but the real money...

      I wonder if we could manage a probe that could do an atmospheric flyby, capture some of the gas, and get it back here without making a crater somewhere. Life is interesting, but the real money shot is the genetic sequence of those microbes if they really are there. If they share any parentage with us, we'll be able to tell, and even tell when we diverged. That would also conclusively prove panspermia is real, too.

      8 votes
      1. [2]
        emdash
        Link Parent
        This exact spacecraft architecture has been mooted for Mars, and was part of the Mars-Scout program back in the early 2000's. Basically a high-speed flyby via an aerodynamic probe that skims the...
        • Exemplary

        This exact spacecraft architecture has been mooted for Mars, and was part of the Mars-Scout program back in the early 2000's. Basically a high-speed flyby via an aerodynamic probe that skims the high atmosphere, collects a small amount of gas, and is sent back on a return trajectory to Earth.

        The modifications for Venus wouldn't need to be particularly major either, the paper authors showed a graphic where they conclude some of the microbes get kicked up into the high atmosphere—so a sufficient sample size might just be lucky enough to capture some of this in frozen form, without needing to dip into very thick portions of the atmosphere.

        Definitely warrants further investigation.

        16 votes
        1. Amarok
          Link Parent
          Excellent. That's a mission with monumental results potential. I'll put tax money on it in a heartbeat.

          Excellent. That's a mission with monumental results potential. I'll put tax money on it in a heartbeat.

          8 votes
    2. Omnicrola
      Link Parent
      Found this article from Dec 2019 on MITs website about the same subject: https://news.mit.edu/2019/phosphine-aliens-stink-1218 Different authors in a different journal, but it appears to be the...

      Found this article from Dec 2019 on MITs website about the same subject: https://news.mit.edu/2019/phosphine-aliens-stink-1218

      Different authors in a different journal, but it appears to be the same subject. Definitely something that warrants ongoing study and research papers.

      3 votes
    3. krg
      Link Parent
      The author of the article retweeted this. So, yea, I imagine it'll be announced formally tomorrow. Apparently, the research will be released in Nature Astronomy.

      The author of the article retweeted this.

      So, yea, I imagine it'll be announced formally tomorrow. Apparently, the research will be released in Nature Astronomy.

      2 votes
  2. [15]
    Turtle
    (edited )
    Link
    Is it just me or is it really weird how underwhelming the response to this has been. I don't think it's even made r/all (edit: it did, I guess it just needed some time), and here on tildes it's...

    Is it just me or is it really weird how underwhelming the response to this has been. I don't think it's even made r/all (edit: it did, I guess it just needed some time), and here on tildes it's only marginally more popular than the average thread. Maybe I'm just overestimating the significance of it, but what I'm is imagining is that it's akin to discovering a footprint identified as homo sapiens in 5 million year old rock, that we are 99.99% sure is dated and identified correctly, and all the reddit atheist types are all like "it's definitely a geological phenomenon" or "THIS PROVES NOTHING UNTIL WE FIND FOSSILS", except in this case, life existing on Venus seems totally plausible based on our current understanding, so much so that a few eminent scientists have speculated to that effect. Do "skeptics" just turn their brains off whenever they hear "extraterrestrial life"? Is everyone preoccupied with the coronavirus? Why isn't this a bigger deal? Am I missing something?

    12 votes
    1. CALICO
      Link Parent
      Personally, I'm mostly just afraid to get excited about something I care about this much.

      Personally, I'm mostly just afraid to get excited about something I care about this much.

      15 votes
    2. [4]
      Autoxidation
      Link Parent
      It's not confirmed this is life, and at least half of the paper is dedicated to discussion of possible unknown geologic or chemical ways this compound could be created in the atmosphere. Life is...

      It's not confirmed this is life, and at least half of the paper is dedicated to discussion of possible unknown geologic or chemical ways this compound could be created in the atmosphere. Life is certainly a possibility from this discovery, but it's not definitive.

      A good skeptical approach to this news is already included in the paper:

      If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within the upper atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions. This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life. Information is lacking—as an example, the photochemistry of Venusian cloud droplets is almost completely unknown. [...]

      Even if confirmed, we emphasize that the detection of PH3 is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry. There are substantial conceptual problems for the idea of life in Venus’s clouds—the environment is extremely dehydrating as well as hyperacidic

      11 votes
      1. [3]
        Turtle
        Link Parent
        I know that. What I'm saying is that it seems like all these "science enthusiasts" are just dismissing the possibility out of habit, while I think it deserves much more consideration. It's like...

        I know that. What I'm saying is that it seems like all these "science enthusiasts" are just dismissing the possibility out of habit, while I think it deserves much more consideration. It's like people are actively antagonistic to the idea that life is common. Also I think it's worth mentioning that that half of the paper is spent discussing and debunking different theories, and that they don't come up with anything they consider realistic.

        3 votes
        1. [2]
          Autoxidation
          Link Parent
          That's just due diligence on the part of the researchers in searching for alternative explanations. The possibility of life is big, so they had to make sure to investigate every currently known...

          That's just due diligence on the part of the researchers in searching for alternative explanations. The possibility of life is big, so they had to make sure to investigate every currently known possibility before even proposing the possibility of life.

          I don't know about you, but this headline of possible life on Venus was pushed to me, while many other events do not. It is currently also sitting pretty high in /r/science, and I don't see any of these "science enthusiasts dismissing the possibility out of habit" in that thread, just trying to give context to those that aren't familiar.

          4 votes
          1. Turtle
            Link Parent
            The tone of internet discourse on the topic seems to have shifted somewhat in the past few hours. The r/science thread was at around 2k upvotes when I posted the parent comment, and if you sort by...

            The tone of internet discourse on the topic seems to have shifted somewhat in the past few hours. The r/science thread was at around 2k upvotes when I posted the parent comment, and if you sort by controversial you might see some of what I meant (although there are lots of deleted comments). Also, the various Hacker News threads. There was a lot of "it was obviously volcanoes/lightning/high pressure/meteors". I think it just took a lot longer than I expected for it to blow up.

            3 votes
    3. Amarok
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      It's over-saturation. You can't even look for astrophysical topics online without being assaulted by a hundred results linking to sensationalized news stories about life on Mars and Europa. The...

      It's over-saturation. You can't even look for astrophysical topics online without being assaulted by a hundred results linking to sensationalized news stories about life on Mars and Europa. The general public isn't science-minded or scientifically literate, so they can't tell the difference.

      I find it intriguing but not exactly earth-shattering news - like confirming a truly obvious fact of cosmology. Panspermia as a concept is on pretty damn solid scientific ground, as least when you're talking about within the same solar system. I'd be more surprised if we did not find microbial life on both Mars and Venus that has a common ancestry with life on Earth than if we did. That's literally the smallest possible jumping distance for panspermia and we've had 4.5 billion years of impacts to stir the pot. We know several of those impacts on Earth were big enough to eject material into space away from Earth, too. We know microbes can survive damn near anything and the vacuum of space presents them no challenge - just an interminable frozen pause. We should expect life on the nearest planets just from cross-contamination.

      Once we sequence the genetic code, though, that's when it gets really interesting. How long have they been there? Was it a recent impact event or have they been evolving over there for as long as we've been here? Is it a separate tree of life with a separate genesis? If the answer to that is yes, that answer has the power to move life in the universe from 'rare' to 'inevitable' and that's when it's time to get excited. It's hard to know when your planetary sample size is... one. You're likely to be wrong. Let's see where two gets us, then three when Elon finally sets up shop on Mars.

      If they brought back a gas sample, I wonder how many varieties of bacteria they might find in it. We're possibly looking at an entirely airborne ecosystem, which is a pretty rad thing - entire species that die if they touch the ground. That's got to make for some wicked strange selection pressures and very cool specializations.

      Give it a little time. Once the meaning of 'no known abiogenic process' finally sinks in to the thick skulls of the press they'll start making hay out of it and you won't be able to avoid the stories about aliens on Venus. So far most of my science podcasts picked it up and talked about it today, so it seems like there is plenty of interest in scientific circles.

      8 votes
    4. Tygrak
      Link Parent
      To me it feels like incredible, very exciting news. I even watched a bit of the press conference. I am not surprised by lots of skepticism, it really is hard to believe that there actually is life...

      To me it feels like incredible, very exciting news. I even watched a bit of the press conference. I am not surprised by lots of skepticism, it really is hard to believe that there actually is life outside of Earth. To me it always felt that it's statistically very improbable that there is no extraterrestrial life, but it also feels like Earth really could be that super incredibly special place. I am also not sure that "we are 99.99% sure is dated and identified correctly" is a accurate thing to say. In the press conference they said multiple times that they aren't saying that this necessarily means that there's life on Venus. They suggested we should do an actual spacecraft flyby and other things. We shouldn't just jump to conclusions immediately. At least for me this is already very exciting, but it will probably take at least a few years to actually confirm or disprove any of this.

      There's been news of this kind so many times before, so some people just ignore it. It's kind of hard to read news like this and be like "guysssss it's actually for realzees this time!!".

      4 votes
    5. [5]
      moocow1452
      Link Parent
      We already found life on Mars, so it's not necessarily our first sighting of extraterrestrial life, and also the coronavirus.

      We already found life on Mars, so it's not necessarily our first sighting of extraterrestrial life, and also the coronavirus.

      3 votes
      1. Turtle
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Well if you're talking about the methane thing, I feel like that would be more like a roughly human shaped impression on a possibly contaminated piece of rock, to extend the analogy. Whereas with...

        Well if you're talking about the methane thing, I feel like that would be more like a roughly human shaped impression on a possibly contaminated piece of rock, to extend the analogy. Whereas with the phosphine, we can see the dermal ridges, can measure the proportions, etc., all from a recently unsealed cave found in the middle of the desert. In other words it is much less ambiguously a sign of life, which is why I think it should be way more significant.

        edit: or do you mean the methane thing inoculated people against the "microorganisms detected on nearby planet via biosignatures" meme? That actually makes a lot of sense to me, although even in "nerdy" communities Hacker News & Tildes (whose users I assume would be more immune to that) it doesn't seem to be getting that much traction.

        3 votes
      2. gpl
        Link Parent
        I would say this is more conclusive than any past “signs of life” announcement from Mars.

        I would say this is more conclusive than any past “signs of life” announcement from Mars.

        3 votes
      3. [2]
        Autoxidation
        Link Parent
        I don't think we did. Do you have a source?

        I don't think we did. Do you have a source?

        2 votes
        1. moocow1452
          Link Parent
          Might have been mistaken, may have been water on Mars that had been telephoned into "OMG Space Aliens!!" But microscopic life in our solar system is one of those "only get to ring the bell" once...

          Might have been mistaken, may have been water on Mars that had been telephoned into "OMG Space Aliens!!" But microscopic life in our solar system is one of those "only get to ring the bell" once stories, and also we have a pandemic.

          3 votes
    6. mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Maybe previous exaggerated responses to flimsy evidence made people overly cautious. We’re also going through a very peculiar phase in our history. I’m pretty excited myself. Scientists are...

      Maybe previous exaggerated responses to flimsy evidence made people overly cautious. We’re also going through a very peculiar phase in our history. I’m pretty excited myself. Scientists are trained to be careful in their statements, but they are clearly hopeful about it.

      It’ll take a long time before a mission, and until then all they can do is cover alternative explanations to either discredit or strengthen the hypothesis.

      3 votes
    7. nothis
      Link Parent
      I'm always careful with assessing the popularity of a post before giving it a day or so. You'd think the internet is so fast but it usually takes a few hours even for big news to trickle through....

      I'm always careful with assessing the popularity of a post before giving it a day or so. You'd think the internet is so fast but it usually takes a few hours even for big news to trickle through. Currently (18 hours after the comment) it looks like this is about as highly upvoted on both Tildes and Reddit as science news will ever get.

      Plus... we got burned by news like this so much in the past. "Mars shows certain rock lines that could have been rivers and might allow life"... then you look into the comments and an actual scientist chimes in, "yea, it increased the chance of life by a factor of 10, from 0.0000001 to 0.000001, that's amazing!!". Well... it's hard to appreciate this without a master's degree worth of context.

      2 votes
  3. [2]
    Keegan
    Link
    Here is the article about it: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1174-4 Only the abstract is available for me since my uni doesn't have access to this journal online, so I may have to wait...

    Here is the article about it: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1174-4

    Only the abstract is available for me since my uni doesn't have access to this journal online, so I may have to wait for a print version to arrive.

    11 votes
  4. [3]
    emdash
    Link
    @Deimos, Google have removed the cached page from their servers, perhaps this is a better link now? Smelly, poisonous molecule may be a sure-fire sign of extraterrestrial life

    @Deimos, Google have removed the cached page from their servers, perhaps this is a better link now? Smelly, poisonous molecule may be a sure-fire sign of extraterrestrial life

    6 votes
    1. [2]
      hungariantoast
      Link Parent
      Other mirrors are still up:...

      Other mirrors are still up:

      https://web.archive.org/web/20200914003530/https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:dUWrpm80WHsJ:https://earthsky.org/%3Fp%3D343883+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

      https://archive.vn/L7MT1

      https://www.docdroid.net/Ai3int3/webcachegoogleusercontentcom-has-microbial-life-been-found-on-venus-pdf

      Honestly, considering the potential magnitude of this discovery, maybe it'd just be best to leave this as is, but perhaps with another mirror link, and then just have a whole new topic tomorrow for the actual announcement, with links to the paper and everything (assuming something does actually get announced tomorrow).

      6 votes
      1. Deimos
        Link Parent
        Sure, I'll just switch it to the Internet Archive one for now. Thanks for finding those.

        Sure, I'll just switch it to the Internet Archive one for now. Thanks for finding those.

        4 votes
  5. cfabbro
    (edited )
    Link
    For those interested in more info about this discovery, /r/askscience is currently hosting an AMA with a group of the researchers and experts from the facilities involved in this finding:...

    For those interested in more info about this discovery, /r/askscience is currently hosting an AMA with a group of the researchers and experts from the facilities involved in this finding: https://redd.it/itt9b7

    4 votes
  6. [2]
    blitz
    Link
    Relevant XKCD
    1 vote
    1. mrbig
      Link Parent
      Not gonna lie, I think I’d be the guy giving aliens a hug.

      Not gonna lie, I think I’d be the guy giving aliens a hug.

  7. [6]
    helloworld
    Link
    Betteridge's law of headlines: Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

    Betteridge's law of headlines:
    Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

    3 votes
    1. [5]
      moonbathers
      Link Parent
      Most of the time I agree with this, but the quote at the end of the article makes me think otherwise: The guy they talked to thinks it's microbes until proven otherwise, so I'm a little bit...

      Most of the time I agree with this, but the quote at the end of the article makes me think otherwise:

      It’s very hard to prove a negative. Now, astronomers will think of all the ways to justify phosphine without life, and I welcome that. Please do, because we are at the end of our possibilities to show abiotic processes that can make phosphine.

      Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment, but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.

      The guy they talked to thinks it's microbes until proven otherwise, so I'm a little bit excited at least.

      7 votes
      1. [4]
        j3n
        Link Parent
        I'm pretty excited, but the answer to the question in the title is still unambiguously "no". The title is classic clickbait, exaggerating the story to get attention.

        I'm pretty excited, but the answer to the question in the title is still unambiguously "no". The title is classic clickbait, exaggerating the story to get attention.

        1. [3]
          moonbathers
          Link Parent
          It is a clickbait title, but what they do now is still a big deal.

          It is a clickbait title, but what they do now is still a big deal.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            helloworld
            Link Parent
            Agreed, it is a big deal. But the title doesn't have to be clickbait. HN title is "Signs of life found on Venus" or something like that. It is much less ambiguous, it is much less clickbait-y and...

            Agreed, it is a big deal. But the title doesn't have to be clickbait. HN title is "Signs of life found on Venus" or something like that. It is much less ambiguous, it is much less clickbait-y and still intriguing.

            Let's not make Tildes the next old thing, we're going to have discussion because the topic is interesting to us, not because the headline was eye-catching.

            5 votes