Two years after landing on the Moon, David Bowie released his hit track “Life on Mars?” and today we’re left to wonder if Bowie was part of a massive misdirection campaign to put focus on discovering life on Mars.

The thought that Bowie was part of a conspiracy is of course preposterous but it makes for a great segue into today’s story about space and the search for life beyond Earth.

This week an international team of researchers discovered possible signs of life on Earth’s other celestial neighbour, Venus.

The possible sign of life is the presence of phosphine. What is phosphine?

“Phosphine is a colorless, flammable, and explosive gas at ambient temperature that has the odor of garlic or decaying fish. Small amounts occur naturally from the break down of organic matter. It is slightly soluble in water. Phosphine is used in semiconductor and plastics industries, in the production of a flame retardant, and as a pesticide in stored grain,” reads a description of the gas by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Firstly, gross. More importantly however, this is a very interesting discovery.

The researchers from the UK, US and Japan observed phosphine in the clouds of Venus but the concentration of this is very low, about twenty molecules in every billion.

While that is low, the researchers are now trying to figure out how this phosphine came to be. While the gas can come from sunlight, volcanoes, lightning and other natural events, the researchers state that this only accounts for one ten thousandth of the gas.

“To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10 percent of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere,” reads a press release from the European Southern Observatory.

The presence of phosphine doesn’t confirm the presence of life though it does mean that more work needs to be done to understand how the gas came to be on Venus.

There has been speculation that life exists in Venus’ clouds but those clouds are incredibly acidic and microbes (at least those we are able to observe on Earth) can’t survive such an acidic environment.

“Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid,” explains Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers who discovered the gas.

Make no mistake, this is terribly exciting and may lead to us gaining a deeper understanding of whether life exists beyond our planet.

What makes this even more incredible is just how much tech went into making this observation.

Signs of phosphine were first discovered by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

To confirm the discover 45 antennaes at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile was used. Venus was then observed at a wave length of 1mm something only telescopes at high altitude can do.

If you are so inclined, you can read the full report titled “Phosphine Gas in the Cloud Decks of Venus” here.

It’s a pity that “is there life on Venus” can’t be belted out with the same vigour as Bowie’s version.

[Image credit – ESO/M. Kornmesser & NASA/JPL/Caltech]