Venus, computer artwork.

Photo by: SCIEPRO


When Was There Life on Venus?

What we have is a cosmic whodunit. Venus, the second planet from the sun and considered by the more romantic types as "Earth's twin" and the avatar of love, is dead.

Air pressure 90 times greater than on Earth. Temperatures hot enough to melt lead. An atmosphere composed of toxic carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid.

In other words, hell.

And yet, billions of years ago, things were different. Venus really did resemble a sister of our planet: liquid water oceans, white fluffy clouds, a place for life to potentially call home.

And now, like I said, dead. What did it?

The conventional story goes like this. Billions of years ago our sun was smaller and dimmer, and Venus was perfectly fine, chilling out. But as the sun aged it got brighter and hotter. Venus started to sweat. The oceans began to evaporate. The increased water vapor in the air trapped more heat. The oceans dried up. With no more oceans to lubricate the gears, tectonic activity - the great shifting of continental plates - shut down. Carbon that would normally get recycled and buried deep within the planet was instead vented into the atmosphere, skyrocketing the temperatures and choking off any possibility for life.

All this happened long, long ago, when life on Earth was nothing more than simple, microscopic one-celled critters wiggling around in the ocean.



Maat Mons is displayed in this three-dimensional perspective view of the surface of Venus. Magellan.

Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Maat Mons is displayed in this three-dimensional perspective view of the surface of Venus. Magellan.

But new research suggests Venus didn't die billions of years ago. Its oceans may have survived until relatively recently - up to a mere 700 million years ago (which is basically "yesterday" when it comes to astronomy).

The researchers used state-of-the-art computer simulations, the same kinds of simulations used to predict the effects of climate change on the Earth, to see how a brightening sun would scorch Venus.

And what they found is that the relationship between Venus and the sun was... complicated.

It turns out that many little details had big impacts on the survivability of Venus' oceans (and hence the survivability of any potential life that may have developed over there). In some cases all the water dried up right away, but in many cases the presence of large oceans was able to absorb the impact of the hotter sun, keeping everything in the chill zone for a couple billion years--until it couldn't.

Something especially bad happened to Venus about 700 million years ago. The phrase used around polite company is "global resurfacing event" but a more accurate phrase would be "Venusian Armageddon".

In a series of calamities, the surface of Venus managed to flip itself inside out, releasing an unholy amount of buried carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it stayed and trapped heat, dealing the final death blow to the doomed planet.

We don't know how long it lasted. We don't know if it was one single disaster or a series of unfortunate events.

All we know is that this catastrophe happened. And while for decades we had thought that at this point Venus was already long dead, the new research suggests that water and life may have been clinging to existence (and perhaps even thriving) before this final coup de grace.

Could our sister planet have hosted life of any form? Did that life have the time and opportunity to evolve into more complex organisms? Did they reach the capability to watch and understand as their world literally turned inside out?

Venus holds many secrets beneath its cruel atmosphere, and for now, she's not telling.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of Your Place in the Universe.

Next Up

The Kuiper Belt: When Solar Systems Dance

Pluto isn't alone after all. Besides being the home of Pluto, the Kuiper belt hosts dwarf planets, and smaller bits of rock and ice.

DNA's Building Blocks May Have Their Origins in Outer Space

One of life's building blocks could have originated in outer space. But if this experiment shows how these building blocks actually formed, how exactly did they get to Earth?

That’s a (Weirdly) Big Black Hole!

Recently astronomers identified a black hole near a star called LB-1 and they found out that the black hole is 70 times the mass of the sun. This is a mystery because the biggest black holes we can get from the deaths of the most massive stars are around 30 times the mass of the sun, so how did black hole get this big?

Where should we go? The Moon or Mars?

There’s been a lot of excitement around space exploration recently. Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter discusses the viability between the Moon and Mars.

Why We'll (Probably) Never Be Able to Teleport

For many of us, teleportation would be the absolute best way to travel. Imagine just stepping into a transporter and being able to go thousands of miles in nearly an instant.

India’s Space Agency is Going Big… By Going Small

Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter shares the latest in the world of rocket launches and what India’s SSLV is all about.

Last Call for the King of Planets

This month Jupiter is entering conjunction which means it's the last chance this year to catch a glimpse of the largest planet in our solar system.

Following Blue Origin’s NS-12 Rocket Launch

Blue Origin, Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company, is rescheduled to launch its NS-12 reusable spacecraft on Wednesday, December 11. Watch it LIVE.

Check out the Earth’s 800,000 Year Old Battle Wound

Scientists may have discovered the location of an ancient buried crater, a result of a meteorite that barreled into the Earth some 800,000 years ago.

Voyager 2 is Really Far Out There, Man

Currently Voyager 2 is about 11 billion miles from the Earth, and has been traveling at speeds of tens of thousands of miles per hour since its launch in 1977. Read more to see where it is now and what we've learned.