A single molecule is not sufficient to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life

DrThe discovery of extraterrestrial life, even if in microbiological form, would be a triumph for science. Every mysterious proposition rests on open ears – as was the last case in September 2020 with the supposed discovery of monophosphorous gas in Venus’ atmosphere. This could indicate the existence of life, as was said at the time. The discovery report published by Jane Graves of Cardiff University quickly sparked criticism: Experts even questioned whether Graves and her colleagues had even measured phosphorous gas. Instead, it would have been sulfur dioxide, as has been speculated.

In November, the researchers admitted that they had overestimated the phosphorous concentration due to a data error in the Alma telescope’s network, but the gas was present. This means that some processes on our neighboring planet must provide for regeneration, otherwise the gas will long ago disappear. In their work, Graves and colleagues assessed that this could be biological as unlikely, but it was not excluded. This was enough for this account, promoted by responsible press offices, to elicit a media response that few scientific publications receive.

This is what the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will look like when completed

This is what the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will look like when completed

Bild: This

We will soon know whether or not Venus’ atmosphere contains phosphine: After a pandemic-related fracture, Alma resumed operations in March. So what if the discovery is confirmed? Do the microorganisms that produce phosphine as a metabolic product live in the clouds of Venus, or does the gas come from “unexplained chemistry,” as the researchers vaguely described it?

Find fingerprints from life

Questions like these will arise frequently in the future. The US James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched in the fall of 2021, or the European Very Large Telescope currently under construction in Chile, will soon also be able to examine the atmosphere of Earth-like planets around the Sun in one form or another. The stars are the fingerprints of life. It won’t be easy, not even with more obvious biomarkers like oxygen.

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