September 14, 2020

Venus has been described as "Earth's evil twin" and "a fiery wasteland." Now it has a surprising new attribute, according to scientists: possible home of extraterrestrial life.

While even Venus apologists admit that the planet is the "literal interpretation of a mythical hellscape," with temperatures that exceed 800°F and poisonous gases that would kill you in seconds, on Monday astronomers confirmed the discovery of a chemical, phosphine, in the morning star's atmosphere. "On Earth, certain microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, like at a sewage plant, are believed to produce the chemical," CNET explains. "The gas is highly toxic to humans and smells like decaying fish." (An MIT professor who spoke with NPR was less polite, describing it as smelling like "the rancid diapers of the spawn of Satan"). What's so cool about this smelly deadly rotting fish gas, though, is that "after much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation" for Venus' levels of phosphine, The New York Times reports.

Though this doesn't confirm extraterrestrial life, it's still "pretty damn exciting," to quote David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute. And as everyone's favorite astronaut, Chris Hadfield, tweeted, the implications are huge: "If there's life in the upper atmosphere of Venus," he wrote, "then we're going to find life on many planets and moons — and around other stars." Sure, that life might not be anything more advanced than a super stinky microbe, but the cosmos are still on the cusp of getting that much more crowded. Suddenly, the big black void above us doesn't seem quite as lonely as it once did.

Speaking as someone who really, really wants the truth to be out there, this is, needless to say, invigorating news — particularly as Venus was the dark horse in the search for alien life compared to her more popular brother, Mars. But beyond being an astonishing breakthrough in the field of astrobiology, the potential of life on (or around) Venus is the kind of feel-good scientific discovery this year has desperately needed.

That's not to mitigate the extremely important work scientists are doing to understand and cure COVID-19, or to grasp the climate science behind our historic hurricane season and the wildfires that have made the air quality on the West Coast downright Cytherean. But the anxiety and urgency driving such research in 2020 can also make me forget that scientific discoveries are a joy — and the Venus news is a reminder that there are still so many amazing things we have yet to learn, even about our own planetary neighbors next door. Jeva Lange

4:31 p.m.

President Trump has been having trouble getting people to attend his official send-off Wednesday morning when he'll depart from Maryland's Joint Base Andrews and begin his post-presidency life. Numerous current and former White House officials are reportedly planning to bail, and it looks like Vice President Mike Pence will join them.

Reports that surfaced earlier Tuesday suggested Pence wouldn't be able to fit Trump's farewell into his Wednesday schedule, given that he's set to attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration (a White House official reportedly said it would be a logistical challenge to do both). Pence's office then released his official schedule for Wednesday, and the send-off was indeed not included.

It very well may be that Pence just doesn't have time for both events, but the Jan. 6 Capitol siege does appear to have created a lingering rift between the two. In a Twitter post, Pence bid so long to the American people, but did not mention or include any pictures of Trump. Tim O'Donnell

3:34 p.m.

President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks started facing Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday morning, and the first few are slated for an easy approval.

Biden's Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen outlined a broad policy platform in her hearing, promising to focus on the coronavirus pandemic's devastating economic impact from "day one" and encouraging Congress to pass another relief package. Notably, she pledged to name a "very senior-level" official within the department focused on climate, noting "climate change itself and policies to address it could have major impacts, creating stranded assets, generating large changes in asset prices, credit risks, and so forth that could affect the financial system."

Avril Haines, Biden's nominee to be director of national intelligence, seemingly faced little opposition as she addressed tension with China and Iran's nuclear program, The Associated Press reports. Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas meanwhile faced concerns over a 2015 inspector general report contending he showed "an appearance of favoritism and special access" while working in DHS under Obama. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called the report "troubling," but conceded Mayorkas has "a lot of experience" in national security, Politico reports.

After the hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) blocked a unanimous measure to quickly consider Mayorkas. The nominee had promised to do everything he could to stop another violent uprising at the Capitol, something Hawley's opposition to the election allegedly helped inspire.

Yellen, Haines, and Mayorkas are expected to be among Biden's easiest nominees to confirm, bipartisan lawmakers and their aides tell Punchbowl News. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, whose hearing began Tuesday afternoon, is also expected to have a smooth confirmation process. Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin is meanwhile likely to face pushback over his recent military experience in his Tuesday afternoon hearing. Kathryn Krawczyk

3:21 p.m.

President-elect Joe Biden delivered an emotional farewell to Delaware on Tuesday one day before his swearing-in, choking up while paying tribute to the state and to his late son, Beau Biden.

Biden spoke from Delaware before departing for Washington, D.C., and he became emotional from the top of the remarks as he thanked Delawareans who have been with him "through the good times and the bad" and said it's "deeply personal that our next journey to Washington starts here."

The president-elect went on to say he'll "always be a proud son of the state of Delaware," emotionally adding that "when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart." He concluded the speech by honoring his late son, Beau Biden, who served as attorney general for the state and died in 2015.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I only have one regret: that he's not here," Biden said. "Because we should be introducing him as president."

Biden was set to depart for Washington shortly after concluding his remarks. He'll be flying to the nation's capitol on a private aircraft, CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, describing this as "yet another remarkable change in protocol." Zeleny adds, "No immediate word on why he wasn't offered — or isn't flying — on a U.S. government plane, which is standard for a president-elect." Brendan Morrow

3:19 p.m.

The United States recorded yet another lamentable milestone Tuesday, as data from Johns Hopkins University shows the country has surpassed 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.

The American death toll continues to lead the world in fatalities, nearly doubling Brazil's total, which is the second highest globally at more than 210,000.

It took just one month for U.S. COVID-19 fatalities to jump from 300,000 to 400,000 as the coronavirus surged across the country during the winter months and holiday season. The pandemic remains widespread in every state, though there's been a faint glimmer of hope that infections have begun to trend downward in recent days.

Regardless, experts believe there's still a long road ahead and — even with a massive, albeit slower-than-expected vaccination drive underway — the death toll could reach 500,000 by the end of February. Tim O'Donnell

2:00 p.m.

The Georgia Secretary of State's office on Tuesday certified the state's pair of Senate runoff votes, which means Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are set to be sworn into the upper chamber after defeating GOP incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) earlier this month.

Warnock and Ossoff will reportedly join fellow Democrat Alex Padilla, who is taking over Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' California seat, for a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday, not too long after Harris takes her own oath of office.

Once that's done, the Democratic Party will have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, with Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote on matters that require it. Tim O'Donnell

1:57 p.m.

Two members of the National Guard have been removed from Inauguration Day security over ties to far-right militias, The Associated Press reports.

There was no plot found against President-elect Joe Biden, but the two guard members were removed over their connections to the unnamed militias, a U.S. Army official and a senior U.S. intelligence official told AP. The move comes after militia groups and other President Trump supporters attacked the Capitol earlier this month, and as federal law enforcement takes unprecedented steps to secure the Wednesday inauguration of Biden.

Thousands of National Guard members have been filing into the Capitol Hill area over the past week, shutting down the National Mall and surrounding streets amid fears of threats to the inauguration. Hundreds of guard members were spotting sleeping in the Capitol building last week.

In response to the reported removal, the National Guard Bureau told AP that "due to operational security, we do not discuss the process nor the outcome of the vetting process for military members supporting the inauguration." The Secret Service also would not comment. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:17 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is placing blame on President Trump for having "provoked" a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol building.

McConnell spoke Tuesday after the House of Representatives last week impeached Trump for "incitement of insurrection" following a deadly attack on the Capitol by his supporters. Though it's unclear how McConnell will vote in Trump's upcoming second Senate impeachment trial, the Republican leader made clear he believes the president is to blame for provoking the mob — as are others.

"The mob was fed lies," McConnell said. "They were provoked by the president and other powerful people."

The Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building earlier this month while Congress was meeting to certify President-elect Joe Biden's election win. Trump, who has falsely claimed he won the election, spoke at a rally beforehand to encourage the supporters to walk down to the Capitol building and "show strength."

McConnell hasn't said how he'll vote in the Senate impeachment trial. But last week, Axios reported that "there's a better than 50-50 chance" he would vote to convict the president. McConnell says he has "not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate." Brendan Morrow

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