September 21, 2023

Living on Venus? Intriguing molecule phosphine spotted again in the planet’s clouds

    illustration of phosphine molecules floating in space near Venus and the sun

illustration of phosphine molecules floating in space near Venus and the sun

The Venus-phosphine saga continues.

In September 2020, a team of scientists led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales reported the detection of phosphine, a possible indicator of life, in the clouds of Venus. The announcement sparked a heated debate and a flurry of follow-up studies, which generally failed to detect the intriguing molecule in the Venusian atmosphere.

Now there is a new twist. Speaking at the Royal Astronomical Society’s 2023 National Astronomy Meeting in Cardiff this week, Greaves revealed the discovery of phosphine deeper in the atmosphere of Venus than previously observed. Using the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, Greaves and her colleagues dove into Venus’ atmosphere, reaching to the top and even the center of the planet’s clouds.

The team thinks the phosphine could have come from lower in Venus’s atmosphere. But, as Greaves pointed out in the talk, the real question is, what does phosphine mean? Could it be evidence of alien life on Venus?

Related: The phosphine discovered in the clouds of Venus could be a big problem. Here’s what you need to know.

Greaves said that on Earth, phosphine is generated by microorganisms that live in a very oxygen-poor environment. She explained that phosphine is generally not made in other ways on our planet because Earth lacks an abundance of “loose” hydrogen. This suggests that phosphine, if detected on other worlds, is a potential biosignature.

That’s why the alleged discovery of Venus phosphine three years ago caused such a stir. And the thought of life on Earth’s “sister planet” isn’t as far off as you might think: Though Venus’ surface is incredibly inhospitable, reaching temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit (475 degrees Celsius), conditions are about 50 kilometers long. ) above the clouds are much more temperate and earthy.

But even if there is phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the planet is home to life. Abiotic processes, some of which we don’t fully understand, could also be generating the stuff on Venus.

“There’s a big school of thought that you can make phosphine by throwing phosphine rocks into the high atmosphere and erode them with water and acid and get phosphine gas,” Greaves said during her talk.

2020: When all hell broke loose on Venus

Greaves may be wary of causing a furore like the one that resulted from her team’s first detection of phosphine three years ago.

She reflected on how the search for phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus came about and how that led to the situation of 2020. She said the decision to investigate Venus was a result of the study of other solar system worlds such as Saturn and improved telescope technology which made it possible to investigate the atmospheres of smaller planets.

“I vaguely remembered that Venus would have this potential habitat in the high clouds, which is anaerobic, and we ended up getting telescope time, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we look real quick to see if it has some phosphates in it? Venus clouds, an analog to things that live on the surface of the earth?'” said Greeaves. “Amazingly, we found it and all hell broke loose!”

The possible detection sparked a flurry of follow-up studies, some of which were conducted by teams made up of scientists involved in the initial phosphine detection, who failed to turn up the molecule. And these new findings from Greaves and her team are likely to prompt even more follow-up studies.

The debate could be settled in the not-too-distant future, as Venus has emerged as a priority for planetary science and astrobiology. For example, two NASA missions called VERITAS and DAVINCI and Europa’s EnVision orbiter will launch to the planet in the next decade. DAVINCI will have a descent probe on board, which will study Venus’ atmosphere closely as it crashes through it.

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