Life on Venus?

Mount Holyoke’s Darby Dyar talked to The Wall Street Journal about the recent discovery of phosphine gas in Venus’s atmosphere.

By Keely Savoie

There is a whiff of possible life in Venus’s atmosphere. An international group of scientists reported in the journal Nature Astronomy that the famously inhospitable planet’s atmosphere contains traces of phosphine, a gas that is associated with life where there is no oxygen. On Earth, it’s found in sewage facilities and in the guts of living animals. 

But just the presence of phosphine doesn’t necessarily indicate life, said Mount Holyoke’s Darby Dyar, chair of the astronomy department, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

“The experiment was done meticulously,” said Dyar, who is also the Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy. “The problem is that we haven’t thought too much about whether phosphine can be created abiotically on Venus, in part because we know so little about the planet and its chemistry.” 

Mashable also spoke to Dyar about the origins of the belief that the planet might harbor life: Carl Sagan famously hypothesized in 1967 that life might exist in the planet’s clouds. 

"Sagan’s work on Venus was formative, though few today remember his impact," she said. "This finding may be the first of many to come as NASA and other countries renew a Venus exploration program." 

Dyar also spoke to the Washington, and Monte Belmonte of WRSI, a western Massachusetts radio station, on the topic, earning herself the nickname of “Doctor Planet.”

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