Astronomers see possible hints of life in Venus's clouds

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Photo credit This May 2016 photo provided by researcher Jane Greaves shows the planet Venus, seen from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Akatsuki probe. A report released on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 says astronomers have found a potential signal of life high in the atmosphere of our nearest neighboring planet. (J. Greaves/Cardiff University/JAXA via AP)

Astronomers have found a potential sign of life high in the atmosphere of neighboring Venus: hints there may be bizarre microbes living in the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of the hothouse planet.

Two telescopes in Hawaii and Chile spotted in the thick Venusian clouds the chemical signature of phosphine, a noxious gas that on Earth is only associated with life, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Astronomy.

Several outside experts — and the study authors themselves — agreed this is tantalizing but said it is far from the first proof of life on another planet. They said it doesn't satisfy the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" standard established by the late Carl Sagan, who speculated about the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in 1967.

“It’s not a smoking gun," said study co-author David Clements, an Imperial College of London astrophysicist. “It’s not even gunshot residue on the hands of your prime suspect, but there is a distinct whiff of cordite in the air which may be suggesting something.”