Breakthrough Initiatives funds search for primitive life in the clouds of Venus

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope ultraviolet-light image of the planet Venus. Credit: NASA/ESA.

A day after the news broke of the discovery of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, Breakthrough Initiatives announced it was going to fund a private study to search for primitive life in the clouds of Venus and explore the possibility of sending a mission. The study will be led by a Canadian, Dr. Sara Seager of MIT.

In our search for signs of life in our solar system and beyond, it should comes as no surprise that the closest planets to our home, Venus and Mars, should continue to reveal their nature to us. After all, our exploration of these two worlds with spacecraft only began 60 years ago. And while our technology has made great strides in that time, it is results such as yesterday’s news that reminds us that while we think we know a lot about our neighbours, there are still countless discoveries to be made.

Breakthrough Initiatives said that “the study is inspired by the discovery, announced yesterday, of the gas phosphine, considered a potential biosignature, in the planet’s atmosphere.”

“The science team undertaking the research will comprise world-class physicists, astronomers, astrobiologists, chemists and engineers, led by Dr. Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science, Physics and Aerospace Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group will investigate the scientific case for life and analyze the technical challenges of an exploratory mission in the event that such evidence proves compelling.”

The science team includes:

  • Dr. Sara Seager – MIT – Principal Investigator
  • Dr. Janusz Petkowski – MIT – Deputy PI
  • Dr. Chris Carr – Georgia Tech
  • Dr. Bethany Ehlmann – Caltech
  • Dr. David Grinspoon – Planetary Science Institute
  • Dr. Pete Klupar – Breakthrough Initiatives – Chief Engineer

What is phosphine

In their press release, Breakthrough Initiatives defined phosphine as follows. “Phosphine is a ‘biogenic’ chemical: all samples encountered on Earth have been produced by biological or human-made processes requiring considerable energy inputs. Although the precise biological mechanisms generating phosphine are unknown, they are associated with the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria, with the gas being found in oxygen-free environments such as marshlands and swamps, as well as the guts of animals. While the presence of phosphine on Venus may turn out to stem from a non-living process, no such process on a terrestrial planet is currently known to science.”

“The level of phosphine detected in the clouds of Venus — about 20 parts per billion — is completely unexpected for a gas susceptible to destruction by ultraviolet radiation, either directly or by ultraviolet-induced radicals. This suggests that some process is replenishing the gas. But what process?”

One of the first news outlets to report the discovery was the Astrobiology Web ( After the initial news was released, there was a series of news releases from various research centres related to the discovery including the following:

This story of the discovery of phosphine on Venus is just getting started. And that a private organization would so quickly jump onboard the discovery and fund a study and possibly a mission, is quite incredible as well.

The Breakthrough Initiatives was founded by billionaire Yuri Milner in 2015. On funding the initiative right away, Milner said “finding life anywhere beyond Earth would be truly momentous. And if there’s a non-negligible chance that it’s right next door on Venus, exploring that possibility is an urgent priority for our civilization.”

Former Air Force General and NASA Ames Research Director, Pete Worden, who is now the Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives said “the discovery of phosphine is an exciting development. We have what could be a biosignature, and a plausible story about how it got there. The next step is to do the basic science needed to thoroughly investigate the evidence and consider how best to confirm and expand on the possibility of life.”

We’ll continue to follow this story and bring you news as it happens. For your daily dose of Astrobiology news, visit the Astrobiology Web and @Astrobiology and @VenusToday on Twitter.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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