Lesson of the Day: ‘Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds’

Lesson of the Day: ‘Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 2021.

Featured Article: “Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds” by Shannon Stirone, Kenneth Chang and Dennis Overbye

Astronomers on Monday reported the detection of a chemical in the acidic Venusian clouds — phosphine — which may be a possible sign of life. That has some planetary scientists itching to return to the sun’s second planet, especially those who feel Venus has long been overlooked in favor of Mars and other destinations.

In this lesson, you will learn more about Venus and the startling new discoveries in its atmosphere, and consider whether you believe life exists on other planets. In the Going Further activity, you will write about your favorite depiction of extraterrestrial life in popular culture and then design and draw your own original being.

Do you think extraterrestrial life exists? Why or why not?

When you consider life on other planets, what do you imagine?

Do you think of little green men?

Strange and scary creatures?

Super intelligent beings?

A thing with big cute eyes, wrinkled skin and a long glowing finger, as in the movie “E.T. the Extraterrestrial”?

Take several minutes to describe, in writing, what you think extraterrestrial life might look like. Feel free to draw upon fictional portrayals you have seen or read about in movies, TV, comic books or elsewhere.

Be sure to use vivid or descriptive language to capture this alien life form.

Afterward, share your writing with a partner or the class: What similarities and differences do you notice in your depictions?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. What are three facts about Venus you learned from the article? Why have scientists overlooked the planet in the search for extraterrestrial life?

2. What is phosphine? Explain it in your own words.

3. Why do some astronomers believe phosphine in the clouds of Venus might indicate the presence of life? Why are others skeptical of this claim?

4. Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, said:

If this planet is active and is producing phosphine, and there is something that’s making it in the Venus atmosphere, then by God almighty, forget this Mars nonsense. We need a lander, an orbiter, we need a program.

Do you agree? Should astronomers shift their priority to Venus? What challenges do scientists face in exploring Venus? Why have robot missions to the planet failed?

5. What is your reaction to the new discoveries? In your opinion, how significant are they? If there is life on other planets (or their moons), what difference does it make to us?

6. How fascinated are you in the possibility of life on other planets? Does the article convince you that extraterrestrial life exists? Why or why not?

Choose one or more of the following activities.

Option 1: What is your favorite depiction of extraterrestrial life?

There have been many memorable depictions of extraterrestrial life-forms throughout history — such as in films, comic books and television shows like “Star Wars,” “Men in Black” and “Silver Surfer.” Tell us which is your favorite and why.

How does this depiction compare with the signs of what might be life that scientists have discovered on Venus?

Option 2: Conduct further research on possibilities of life in the universe.

Want to find out more about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life? You might start by looking at the Times Planets topic page or by researching one of the planets or moons discussed in the article: Mercury, Mars, Europa and Enceladus.

Beyond The Times, you might also look at these resources:

Life Beyond Earth | Science News

SETI & the Search for Extraterrestrial Life | Space.com

Is Earth’s Life Unique in the Universe? | Scientific American

What new things did you learn about the possibility of life on other planets or other celestial bodies? What evidence best supports the existence of life? Based on your research, how likely do you think it is that there is life in the universe outside of Earth?

Synthesize your findings in a one-pager and share with your class. Or if you are inspired, organize a class debate on the question of whether life on another planet exists.

Option 3: Draw an original picture of extraterrestrial life.

Return to your descriptive writing from the warm-up activity. Does the article (or your additional research) change how you imagine life on another planet?

Now, draw, label and caption your idea of what life on Venus or any other planet in the universe might be like.

Your being can be fantastical or realistic, friendly or warlike, intelligent or a tiny microbe. Keep in mind, though, that life-forms on other planets might exist in very different conditions than they do on Earth, so your creation will need to be well-suited to the environment in which it lives. For example, the article says, “Hot enough to melt metal and with clouds full of acid, any life that could survive in the atmosphere of Venus would have to be capable of enduring extremes.”

Afterward, share your drawings with your class.

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