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Signs of life on Venus may have been found decades ago

Published Oct 2nd, 2020 11:00PM EDT
life on venus
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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  • NASA found the clues to life on Venus almost four decades ago but never realized it.
  • A probe that was sent to Venus back in 1978 returned readings that showed the presence of what appears to be phosphine, which may be produced by biological processes.
  • The data supports the recent research that found phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, though we still don’t know if life actually exists there.

There’s been a whole lot of talk recently about the possibility of life existing in some form on Venus. The planet is a toxic hellscape, but upon scanning its atmosphere a compound called phosphine was detected, which can originate from organic processes. It’s big news, and space agencies are already talking about how they might further probe the mystery with missions to Venus, but is this really news? Shockingly, it might not be.

As LiveScience reports, a now-ancient NASA mission to Venus way back in 1978 may have detected the presence of phosphine decades before this more recent discovery. The data is examined in a new paper that was published to arXiv.

When the news began to circulate that phosphine was discovered in the atmosphere of Venus, researchers began to wonder if a similar signature might be lurking in data collected by the Pioneer 13 mission which included a probe that cruised down to the planet’s surface while collecting data about its atmosphere and other conditions.

The probe was supported by a parachute, giving it time to collect samples and analyze them, beaming the data back to Earth as rapidly as possible. At the time, the researchers didn’t mention anything about phosphine or other phosphorus-based compounds, but the data was still available to be studied, and that’s exactly what a team of researchers did.

So, what did they find? Well, the data shows the presence of phosphorous compounds, and based on the readings and a little bit of math, it seems likely that the data indicates the presence of phosphine.

“We were inspired to re-examine data obtained from the Pioneer-Venus Large Probe Neutral Mass Spectrometer (LNMS) to search for evidence of phosphorus compounds,” the researchers write. “The LNMS obtained masses of neutral gases (and their fragments) at different altitudes within Venus’ clouds. Published mass spectral data correspond to gases at altitudes of 50-60 km, or within the lower and middle clouds of Venus – which has been identified as a potential habitable zone. We find that LMNS data support the presence of phosphine; although, the origins of phosphine remain unknown.”

So, yeah, NASA’s probe detected what is likely phosphine nearly four decades ago and never realized it. That’s pretty wild, and it kind of makes you wonder what other discoveries have been unknowingly made over the decades that NASA and other space agencies have been conducting missions in space.