The announcement appears in leading scientific journals and experts take the Nobel Prize for the astronomer team for granted.
January 2015: The scientists themselves back off and apologize to the scientific community and claim that what they described as a reflection of the mega explosion that would have happened about 14 billion years ago was actually a misinterpretation.
The waves attributed to the Big Bang were actually signals emitted by dust spreading across the Milky Way. The discovery was dusted.
Five years later, the announcement of the discovery of a gas that may indicate the presence of microbes in Venus’ atmosphere has generated waves of euphoria, despite several caveats pointed out by the scientists themselves.
The revolutionary find that shows that there may be life in the clouds of Venus
Published on September 14 in the magazine Nature Astronomy and at the Royal Astronomical Society of London, research has been described as the strongest evidence of extraterrestrial life ever announced by science.
The explanation: the same phosphine molecules identified by the Venus study exist on Earth only as a result of the action of microscopic beings living in the bowels of animals and in oxygen-low environments, such as swamps.
«We are in a very complicated phase of science, with people denying it. That’s why you have to be very careful,» says Fernandes de Mello
Phosphine was found in the clouds of Venus at an altitude of between 50 and 60 kilometers.
As there is no other explanation for the natural presence of phosphine other than the action of these microbes, discovery could be a concrete sign of life in Venus’ atmosphere.
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But important scientists such as Brazilian astrophysicist Duilia Fernandes de Mello, vice-chancellor of Washington Catholic University and NASA researcher for 18 years, call for caution.
«People, sometimes eager to show results, end up making mistakes,» the expert tells BBC Brazil.
The phosphine molecule is made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms
In the analysis of the Brazilian, responsible for the discovery of the supernova SN1997 and participant of the team that identified the so-called «blue bubbles», the announcement about Venus is «reckless», lacks «confirmation» and may be the result of a «match».
«We are in a very complicated phase of science, with people denying science. That’s why you have to be very careful,» he says.
Led by astronomers at Cardiff University in Wales, in partnership with other scientists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, the research identified the presence of phosphine molecules on Venus through radio waves detected by the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii.
The phosphine molecule is composed of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms.
They were confirmed by a set of 45 of the 66 antennae that form a kind of giant telescope at the important Alma Observatory, which is located in chile’s Atacama Desert.
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«They’re just two completely different instruments,» Brazilian astrophysics says. «It was necessary to have a reconfirmation with Alma himself.»
Antennae form a giant telescope at Alma Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert
The main question posed by the team of scientists led by Professor Jane Greaves, author of the cardiff University study, is about the origin of the phosphine found on Venus and the possibility that the molecule, different from those on Earth, may be the result of phenomena that do not involve living organisms.
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«We are genuinely encouraging others to show us a factor (which explains phosphine without involving life) that we may have overlooked,» Greaves said in a press release.
«Other researchers can access our articles and data; that’s how science works,» he added.
In the text detailing the discovery, the authors show that they did a series of tests in an attempt to identify the possibility of an orignatural and non-biological molecule. But they found no convincing answer, which could reinforce the thesis of microscopic life on Venus.
Phosphine was found in the clouds of Venus at an altitude of between 50 and 60 kilometers
Together with other scientists, on the other hand, Brazil’s Fernandes de Mello draws attention to the method used to identify phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere.
It explains that the data obtained in the study are the result of a relationship between the signal emitted by the investigated object, in this case Venus, and the noise intrinsic to observation, such as that of the Earth’s atmosphere or the instruments used, for example.
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«In this case, this reason, which is the division between signal and noise, is very low. Noise almost dominates the signal, the detection,» warns brazil.
«When that is the case, when they are very weak signals, it is necessary to observe several times and on other occasions to really confirm whether the detection was made, or if it was not just a coincidence due to, say, a wrong signal (a noise confused with signal)».
Fernandes de Mello draws attention to the method used to identify phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere
Experience leads the scientist to prefer prudence in scientific dissemination: «Venus won’t leave, will she?»
Fernandes de Mello also highlights the relevance of research on Venus, «a planet very similar to ours in size and very close».
«Given the importance of a substance that has to do with life on another planet, I thought it was reckless to have published it now,» he reflects. «They could have waited longer to confirm the result.»
NASA merely commented briefly on the announcement, noting that it «was not part of the investigation and cannot comment directly on the findings.»
«However, we believe in the peer-review process and look forward to the full discussion that will take place after this publication,» the agency said.
According to the study, phosphine gas was observed at the planet’s mid-latitudes. The concentration is small, forming only 10 to 20 parts per 1 billion atmospheric molecules. But in this context, this is quite significant.
One of the best ways to solve uncertainty would be by using aerobots, experts have said
The antennae form a giant telescope at the important Alma observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert.
A hypothesis similar to that raised by Brazil appears in an article published by The Planetary Society, which was founded by astronomer Carl Sagan, who in turn was the first scientist to raise the possibility of life in the clouds of Venus in an article published in 1967 with molecular biophysicist Harold Morowitz.
«This is the first announcement of a difficult detection that required important modeling and data analysis to separate the phosphine signal from noise,» the text says.
«Authors’ analysis may contain an error or ignore some important context, leading to a false positive. Independent scientific teams must now do the work to confirm this signal.»
In an interview with the BBC, Oxford University professor Colin Wilson, who worked on the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft from 2006 to 2014, expressed caution, but said he believed in the methodology used.
«It’s really exciting and will lead to new discoveries, even if the detection of the original phosphine turns out to be an incorrect spectroscopic interpretation, which I don’t think it is,» he said.
«I believe that today life in the clouds of Venus is so unlikely that we will find other chemical pathways to create phosphine in the atmosphere. But we will discover many interesting things about Venus in this research,» he continued.
Missions to Venus
Venus has harsh atmospheric conditions to harbor life as we know it. Its surface temperatures exceed 400oC.
Questioned by BBC Brazil about what might have led researchers to an eventual hasty publication, Fernandes de Mello recalls that «we are at a turning point for space missions, both in Europe and here (in the US)».
In February of this year, NASA announced two Venus exploration projects among the finalists in a space mission selection process. The decision will be released in 2021.
Venus’ atmosphere contains 92% carbon dioxide
Also in the middle of next year, the European Space Agency is planning an expedition that aims to study geology and the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere.
«Such an outcome motivates missions,» says the Brazilian. «I’m just speculating that this could be, even unconsciously, something that leads us to divulge this kind of result to show the importance of going to Venus.»