Promising sign of life on Venus might not exist after all

The detection of phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus—a possible sign of life—might be due to a fluke in data processing, new analyses suggest.

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This colorized picture of Venus was taken February 14, 1990, by the Galileo spacecraft from a distance of almost 1.7 million miles. It has been colorized to a bluish hue to emphasize subtle contrasts in the cloud markings.

Astronomers recently found a tantalizing hint that life could be wafting through the clouds shrouding Venus. But it seems the hunt for extraterrestrial life is far from over, as new research is already calling that discovery into question.

The detection of phosphine gas in Venus’s atmosphere, announced last month, ignited a firestorm of speculation about whether the gas could be produced by alien microbes on the planet, where NASA is currently considering sending a spacecraft. However, three independent studies now have failed to find evidence of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere.

“They’re saying they don’t see the phosphine. That’s really problematic,” says Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who did not participate in the analysis. The study has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

But detecting a faint signal from a specific molecule...

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