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Did NASA detect a hint of life on Venus in 1978 and not realize it?

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If life does exist on Venus, NASA may have first detected it back in 1978. But the finding went unnoticed for 42 years.

Life on Venus is still a long shot. But there’s reason to take the idea seriously. On Sept. 14, a team of scientists made a bombshell announcement in the journal Nature Astronomy: Using telescopes, they’d detected phosphine, a toxic gas long proposed as a possible sign of alien microbial life, in the upper part of the planet’s thick atmosphere. The detection was a landmark in the long hunt for life elsewhere in the solar system, which has mostly focused attention on Mars and a few moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Meanwhile, Venus, hot and poisonous, was long considered too inhospitable for anything to survive. But now, digging through archival NASA data, Rakesh Mogul, a biochemist at Cal Poly Pomona in California, and colleagues have found a hint of phosphine picked up by Pioneer 13 — a probe that reached Venus in December 1978.

“When the [Nature Astronomy paper] came out, I immediately thought of the legacy mass spectra,” Mogul told Live Science.

Related: 6 reasons astrobiologists are holding out hope for life on Mars 

Mogul and his coauthors were broadly familiar with the data from the missions, he said. “So, for us, it was a natural next step to give the data another look.  As such, after consulting with my co-authors, we identified the original scientific articles, and promptly started looking for phosphorous compounds.”

The discovery, published to the arXiv database Sept. 22 and not yet peer reviewed, doesn’t tell researchers much beyond what was reported in Nature Astronomy — though it does make the presence of phosphine (made up of a phosphorus atom and three hydrogens) even more certain, they said. The 1978