Life on Venus?

Since the 1920’s it became progressively more clear that Venus did not have much oxygen and its atmosphere was thick and carbon dioxide dominated.

Since 1962, as the planetary probe Mariner II passed close to the planet, it became quite evident that Venus was very hot, but this was just a firm observation of what had been suspected from radio observations for a number of years prior. They weren’t able quite yet to get to the surface, but based on temperatures in clouds and what they knew of atmospheric physics, they figured that the temperature on the surface was hundreds of degrees Farenheit.

This only led to a gradual end to the speculation that there might be life on Venus. In the 1950’s. Ray Bradbury wrote several stories about Venus, though these really were more about humans settling on Venus onto a planet with nearly constant rains (“The Long Rain,” All Summer in a Day”). There was nothing in his stories to suggest that these people would certainly require supplemental oxygen, let alone anything about the potentially deadly pressures and temperatures.

An early 1960’s episode of The Outer Limits (“Cold Hands, Warm Heart”) dealt with the after effects of an astronaut encountering a seemingly intelligent life form in the atmosphere of Venus (this at least seemingly folded in the relatively new idea at the time that Venus is very hot). In the film “The Doomsday Machine”, a crew escaping nuclear apocalypse on Earth encounters less that hospitable Venusians when they get to their destination (after nearly killing each other in the process…and some succeed!). But after the early 1970’s, when we all became aware of a Russian space probe that reached Venus and melted shortly after landing, such Venus stories seemed to fanciful.

But even though some of that science fiction seemed ill informed at the time, and was certainly (some of it) poorly produced, we now have some evidence that maybe there’s life on Venus after all. Last week astronomers announced they observed phosphine in the clouds of Venus. To their knowledge, phosphine can only be produced in two situations: those that involve microbial life, or perhaps certain chemical reactions that occur in the very energetic clouds of gas giants. Its thought that Venus doesn’t have any processes that could possibly be energetic enough to produce phosphine, but its also thought to be too hot for life on much of Venus (including much of the atmosphere). So, what’s going on? Most likely, there is just a chemical process we are unaware of, so examining phosphine on Venus may make us more aware of new chemisty. Or, there’s life, and we learn a little bit more about conditions under which life can form (and must relax some of our assumptions, such as life only forming in the “goldilocks” habitable zone of a star). In any case, its exciting waiting to see what the answer is. And though I’d put money on this being new chemistry and not new life, we may still have a lot to learn from going to Venus, which to date has not gotten nearly as much attention as Mars or even Jupiter’s moons.

And of course, if you want to read more about physics and astronomy in sci fi, get my (Steve Bloom’s) book, The Physics and Astronomy of Science Fiction, available from Amazon, other online booksellers and the publisher (McFarland). Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon.

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