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NASA chief calls for prioritizing Venus after surprise find hints at alien life

A unexpected find in the clouds of Venus could possibly signal alien life, and NASA's administrator Jim Bridenstine wants to take a closer look.

NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft got a look at Venus in 1974.

NASA has a lot of priorities on its plate. There's the ongoing exploration of Mars. There's the ambitious plan to send astronauts back to the moon in 2024. Now we can add Venus to that list, and possibly even nudge it toward the top.

News of the surprising discovery of the chemical compound phosphine in the clouds of Venus has triggered speculation alien microorganisms could be living on the seemingly inhospitable planet. On Earth, phosphine is associated with certain microbes.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called the findings "the most significant development yet in building the case for life off Earth" in a Tweet on Monday.

Bridenstine pointed to NASA research into microbial life in Earth's upper atmosphere and wrote, "It's time to prioritize Venus." 

Venus isn't a completely unexplored planet. There have been NASA, ESA, JAXA and Soviet flybys and probes sent to the second planet from the sun.

"As with an increasing number of planetary bodies, Venus is proving to be an exciting place of discovery, though it had not been a significant part of the search for life because of its extreme temperatures, atmospheric composition and other factors," NASA said in a release Monday that also stated the space agency wasn't involved in this latest research.

Bridenstine's enthusiasm would still need to be translated into actual missions before we get too excited about NASA revisiting the enigmatic planet. The agency has already been considering a return to Venus in some form. NASA is exploring the possibility of a couple of Venus-focused missions as part of its Discovery Program

The new study and the questions it raises may be reason enough to fast-track a mission to take a closer look at the Venus clouds. Is it alien life? Is there another explanation? We need more data to make the call.