Tuesday, February 21, 2006

No life on Venus?

It should come as little surprise, but a scientific panel has concluded that the Earth is in no danger from Venusian germs riding back to Earth and harming Earth-based life.

Venus is a hellish place. The average temperature is nearly 750 degrees Celsius (roughly 1350 degrees Fahrenheit) -- hot enough to melt tin, lead, aluminum, zinc, and plutonium, among other things! Venus's clouds are made of sulfuric acid. It is not surprising that we don't expect to find anything living there!

So, why spend money on a study? As we begin to explore the planets around us (notably Mars), there is a tiny, tiny chance that we could find life, and that this life could prove harmful to life on Earth. The cost of repairing any damage from that mistake is many times more than the costs of studies to show how to prevent that problem. Also, by beginning with worlds where there is almost certainly no life, scientists have many chances to avoid overlooking some potential danger. For example, there are parts of Venus's atmosphere where conditions are not quite so inhospitable. Could there be germs floating aroung the clouds there? This is very, very unlikely. But it reminds us to worry about germs that may be floating around the atmosphere in Mars -- so even if astronauts just fly over Mars in an airplane, we know to worry about their safety and possible contamination.

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