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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Scientists are trying to parse out whether a possible sign of life seen in Venus' clouds is truly there.

Why it matters: The announcement that researchers may have spotted a signal of the gas phosphine in Venus' atmosphere was met with excitement by the public and scientists alike, heralded as a possible sign that microbes could live in the planet's clouds.

The intrigue: Now, the researchers behind the study and others aren't so sure that gas signal is real.

  • Some researchers have criticized the way the data used for the phosphine result — which was gathered at the limits of currently available technology — was processed, suggesting that the phosphine signal was actually just noise.
  • The ALMA Observatory data used to make the phosphine claim were also taken offline for reprocessing.
  • Once that reprocessing concluded, the scientists behind the initial study found that the phosphine signal was perhaps still there but weaker than what the original data showed.
"Now it is a weaker detection," Clara Sousa-Silva, one of the authors of the original phosphine study, said. "To be completely honest, I don't know where I lean. I find leanings are problematic in science so I try not to lean, and I am just waiting like the rest of the world for confirmation either way."

What's next: Scientists likely need new data.

  • Researchers are planning new observations, but Venus is currently on the other side of the Sun, making it impossible to observe from Earth.
  • Scientists are also holding out hope that no matter what happens with phosphine, this possible discovery has stoked excitement in jumpstarting new missions to Venus.
  • If the signal does turn out to be real, researchers still haven't come up with any viable alternative explanations for how phosphine could be on Venus without the possible presence of life, Sousa-Silva added.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jul 7, 2020 - Science

The race to find Planet X heats up

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Teams of scientists are vying to be the first to spot a large, hypothetical planet that might be lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system.

Why it matters: Astronomers have found thousands of planets orbiting other stars, but the hunt for this possible planet orbiting our own Sun — called Planet X or Planet 9 by some — is showing just how little we know about our solar system.

Moderna says vaccine appears to protect against new COVID-19 variants

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against new variants of the virus that first appeared in the U.K. and in South Africa, the company announced on Monday.

Yes, but: The vaccine was as effective against the strain from U.K., but saw a six-fold reduction in antibodies against the South Africa variant. Even still, the neutralizing antibodies generated by the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective," according to the company.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Updated 1 hour ago - World

Xi Jinping warns against "new cold war" in Davos speech

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wang Zhao - Pool/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that a "new cold war" could turn hot, and must be avoided, in a speech on Monday at World Economic Forum’s virtual “Davos Agenda” conference.

Why it matters: Xi didn't refer directly to U.S.-China tensions, but the subtext was clear. These were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, whose administration has already concurred with Donald Trump's determination that China is committing "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims, and issued a warning about China's aggression toward Taiwan.