‘It is a joy in a time of many challenges to joy.’
Two of the Anglican Church of Canada’s most senior leaders are hailing with enthusiasm the discovery of a gas associated with living organisms on the planet Venus.
“We believe that God is the creator of all, not just this particular planet—and the fact that we are only slowly discovering the extent of that creation does not change that for us,” said Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. “In fact—it is an exciting expansion of our understanding of the creative power of God.”
National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald said he was joyful, though not surprised, at the discovery.
“It is in concert with an Indigenous-informed, Christ- and Spirit-infused view of this universe,” MacDonald said. “It is an affirmation of my understanding of this universe in God. It is a joy in a time of many challenges to joy.”
On Monday, Sept. 14, a small group of scientists based in the U.S. and U.K. announced they had discovered the signature of phosphine, a rare gas, in the atmosphere of Venus. What makes the discovery remarkable, they said, is that they’re as yet unable to explain how it could exist in the concentrations they observed unless there is life of some sort on the planet.
“The reason for our excitement is that phosphine gas on earth is made by microorganisms that live in oxygen-free environments, and so there is a chance that we have detected some kind of living organisms in the clouds of Venus,” said Jane Greaves, a professor of astronomy at the University of Cardiff, and lead author of a research paper on the discovery also published this week. “To me this is really encouraging for the hypothesis of life.”
The planet’s surface is extremely hot—hot enough in fact, to melt any spacecraft humans might send to the planet, she said. (In 1982 the Soviet-launched Venera 13 lander set a record by holding out for 127 minutes before succumbing to the heat, pressure and acid.) Fifty to 60 km above the surface, however, temperatures and pressures are similar to those on earth.
For decades, beginning with American scientist Carl Sagan, there has been some speculation about the possibility of microorganisms existing in the planet’s clouds, added Sara Seager, a Canadian-American astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a co-author of the study.
The findings are the result of a study begun by Greaves in 2016. She began trying to find the signature of phosphine on Venus using sophisticated telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. Phosphine molecules absorb radio waves at a certain wavelength, and the telescopes detected a significant dip in radio waves in Venus’s atmosphere at that wavelength.
“This is very exciting, and was really quite unexpected,” she said.
Co-author William Bains, also of MIT, said the team modeled all the ways they could imagine phosphine being produced on Venus, but were unable to find a way the gas could be produced in anywhere close to the concentration detected unless there was either life on the planet or some other path—as yet unknown to science—for it to come to exist there in such abundance.
At the same time, he noted, the clouds of Venus consist mostly of sulfuric acid—a very harsh environment for life, at least as we know it.
Seager likewise cautioned it’s too early to conclude there’s life on the planet based on these results alone.
“We are not claiming we have found life on Venus,” she said. “We are claiming a confident detection of phosphine gas whose existence is a mystery.”
The discovery nevertheless raises an “exciting, enticing possibility,” she said. Astronomers in recent years have been putting together a growing list of possible life-bearing planets and moons in our solar system alone. The results announced this week put Venus toward the front of that list, she said—and could provide a spur for exploratory missions to the planet.
“By our phosphine gas discovery, we have raised Venus higher up on that ladder of interesting targets, and we hope that our discovery motivates focused space missions to go to Venus to look for other gases, more gases, signs of life—and even life itself.”
Reached by the Anglican Journal, Seager said any eventual confirmation of life on Venus would be amazing on many levels—among them the relative proximity of Venus to Earth and the planet’s “incredibly harsh environment.”
She added, “While I am not religious myself, I think religions can and will have to adapt to the existence of life elsewhere.”
Finding life on other planets, she said, would complete the revolution begun by Copernicus—the series of discoveries in recent centuries that have progressively displaced Earth from the centre of the cosmos and from a unique role in it. In the early 16th century, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the sun, rather than the earth, was the centre of the universe. His theory eventually drew the condemnation of church authorities, who believed it incompatible with biblical doctrine.
Since the time of Copernicus, Seager said, “our place in the cosmos has slowly become less and less special,” with discoveries that our sun is only one of a vast number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy—and that the Milky Way is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.
On the other hand, she added, “there are likely people who wouldn’t care [about the possibility of other life] until we find intelligent aliens we can connect with.”
Asked about the possibility and ethics of any future collection by humans of samples of Venusian life, Seager said the missions she foresees to Venus would be for the purpose of sampling the atmosphere and measuring it at a distance, with the results transmitted back by radio, rather than collecting samples.
“It’s hard to bring samples back to Earth, to escape Venus’s gravity and make it back,” she said. “There is already a NASA Planetary Protection Office that provides strict guidelines on sterilization levels needed for space missions to enter another planet’s atmosphere (or land on its surface).”
For her part, Nicholls said she did not see a conflict or concern about the possibility of planet Earth not being the only site of life in the universe. She did, however, see the discovery announced Monday as one more cause for humans to be mindful of their place in creation and of their responsibility to it.
“It should also remind us that human beings are a part of that creation—with particular capacity to create and destroy—but we are not the only or best part!” Nicholls said.
Significantly, it was also reported on the same day, she said, that a very large section of Greenland’s ice cap had broken off as a result of rising temperatures.
“We are integrated with all of creation on this planet—and, in some ways yet to be discovered, with the universe,” she said. The discovery of phosphine on Venus, she added, will have among its ethical implications the question of “whether we are willing to learn from our own mistakes, and from whatever we find in the wider universe in coming millennia.”