Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, is one of the four rocky planets in our Solar System and the second closest to the Sun. It is also the second-brightest celestial object in the night sky after the Moon, shining so bright that it is immediately recognisable to the naked eye and is therefore called “morning star”, when it vaults in the eastern horizon before dawn, or “evening star” when it is the first “star” to appear in the sky after sunset.
Often referred to as the Earth’s sister or twin, owing to the very similar size, mass and proximity to our star, Venus is in reality much different from our planet on several other aspects. Unlike Earth and most planets in the Solar System, Venus in fact rotates clockwise thus having the Sun rising in the west and setting in the east. Also, it spins so slow (the slowest in the Solar System), that one day there lasts the equivalent of 243 Earth days. By contrast, the planet orbits the Sun every 224.7 Earth days: on Venus, a year is shorter than a day!
With a temperature of roughly 470 degrees Celsius (880 F), Venus is by far the hottest planet in our solar system; its surface is a dry and dusty desertscape made up of mountains, valleys and thousands of active volcanos, which periodically resurface the planet. Regardless of the unfriendly conditions, in 1981 a Soviet Union space probe, Venera 13, was able to crash-land on Venus’ surface; the lander survived 127 minutes (despite being designed to last 30 minutes) and was able to transmit the first colour images of the Venusian landscape.
Venus’ extreme conditions depend largely on its thick and toxic atmosphere, which is mostly made up of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulphuric acid droplets that trap all the Sun’s heat. However, the atmosphere has many layers and at the level where the clouds are, the temperature is milder, resembling that of our Planet’s surface.
It is also for this reason that part of the scientific community has long believed that some sort of alien life, most likely microorganisms, may hide within the planet’s upper atmosphere. And a confirmation to this hypothesis may just have come from a recent discovery. Only few weeks back, in fact, an international team of astronomers confirmed the detection in the cloud of Venus of a phosphine, a toxic gas generally considered as a biomarker, a potential sign of life.
This is because back on Earth, phosphine is produced by microbes in oxygen-free environments, like for example inside penguins’ guts, or via some industrial processes. While scientists believe that Venus does not host all the necessary conditions for the natural production of phosphine, the quantities detected suggest that something must indeed be restocking it. However, the team has remained very cautious on the nature of their finding, and only further researches will tell us what astronomers have really found; but be this alien life or a previously unknown chemical process, it remains an interesting and exciting discovery.