Up until we took a close look, Venus was thought by the superpowers of the world to be a tropical paradise beneath a layer of humid, yellowish clouds. Many were astounded to find a barren acidic wasteland, but not all were disappointed. Spacecraft has made contact with the surface of Venus in the past, and we have some interesting photos and information available of what they saw. Furthermore, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the conditions so severe they disassemble and disintegrate many spacecraft on arrival, can be quite similar to conditions found on our own planet. Conditions that, surprisingly enough, have their own ecosystem of complex varieties of life.
The Atmosphere of Venus
Venus’s atmosphere is a whole lot different than ours; it crushes down on the surface with 90 times the pressure our atmosphere does, and it’s mostly made up of carbon dioxide. The thick layers of clouds on Venus are composed mainly of sulfuric acid, and did a great job of literally destroying America and Russia’s earlier attempts at landing a probe on the surface.
Venus suffers from what we call the “greenhouse effect”, or the effect that global warming threatens to have on our planet. That means that the atmosphere has become too heavy with carbon dioxide, creating a trap for harmful radiation rather than a filter. The planet holds in all it takes in and traps it in it’s dense atmosphere, creating the arid and acidic conditions that Venus has above and below. Now this sounds like a pretty difficult place to live, considering the building blocks of life are supposed to be (healthy amounts of) sunlight and water. We don’t see any liquid water on Venus, and the atmosphere was thought to be far too deadly and poisonous to any known form of life.
The clouds of Venus
The sulfur clouds in Venus’s atmosphere also contain chlorine and other chemicals thought detrimental to life. Many studies have shown that it’s possible the runaway greenhouse effect that Venus is continuously experiencing could have not only caused whatever liquid water may have been on the surface to disappear – but the process could have also created or exacerbated the endlessly thick layer of clouds that travel with blinding winds across Venus’s atmosphere.
The conditions existing mostly in the lowermost layers of Venus’s clouds seem to be the most promising in the search for microbial life. Extremely acidic conditions exist on Earth – like the hydrothermal vents under the ocean – and we are just now beginning to realize how hearty the species are that live in an environment once thought to be uninhabitable. Is it really foolish to think that life could exist in such a place, when we have proof it already does exist in very similar conditions?
The Search for Microbial Life
This is the best place to start – searching the atmosphere and immedeate surface areas for evidence of microbial life. Samples of the cloud composition, pieces of ground from different areas, and samples of the variations in the atmospheric composition from the ground up would be absolutely invaluable to have in the search for life on another planet. Many scientists believe that searching Venus for such life will sooner be more promising than studies on Mars.
Professor David Grinspoon at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of “Venus Revealed”, is one of the people most interested in searching those areas of Venus the most. Professor Grinspoon even goes so far as to state that life on Earth may have been seeded from Venus, by extremophile microbes tucked away in chunks of flying space rock. With all the knowledge we have up to this point, that’s not too far fetched of a theory at all. (More info on what Professor Grinspoon was talking about here and here.)
The Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas in El Paso houses some people interested in Venus’s history of life – some are even sure that microbial life still exists and has adapted to survive even after Venus lost it’s oceans. (Info on that here.)
Right now, there are several established scientific groups all over the world that are working on answering the same question – Is there life elsewhere in our solar system? In our galaxy? In the universe? Well, perhaps our sister planet is the best place to start looking. Let’s hope we can all learn to respect and accept the answers we find along the way.
Sources and Helpful Links:
Studies on Venus at The University of Colorado
Technical Data from solarspace.co.uk
Information on recent Venus projects from Space.com