A team of scientists has done a press release recently, announcing the discovery of phosphine in the cloudtops of Venus. How is this chemical related to speculating life? What does this mean for future space missions on other planets in the galaxy?
Crux of the Matter
Have We Thought About Life On Venus Before?
In the 1960s, spacecrafts like NASA’s Mariner 2 and Soviet Union’s Venera 4 were sent to Venus. Then it was revealed that Venus had a dense atmosphere of CO2 lurking below thick clouds of sulphuric acid (H2SO4), which was hot enough to melt lead. Then organisms like extremophiles were discovered later on Earth.
What Are Extremophiles?
They are carbon-based microbes that can survive in extreme conditions like nuclear waste, highly acidic waters, undersea vents with high pressure and temperature conditions, and even in the ISS (International Space Station).
Can They Survive On Venus Then?
Extremophiles may survive in the acidic upper parts of the planet’s atmosphere, which has surface temperatures going below than 462°C (864 F). In fact, phosphine (PH3) was found in that altitude itself, between 48 and 60 km.
What’s PH3 Got To Do With It?
It is a colorless, flammable gas, majorly used in the semiconductor industry to introduce phosphorus into silicon crystals. On Earth, it’s produced by anaerobic organisms, which survive without oxygen, via decaying organic matter. It can also be prepared in the laboratory via chemical reactions.
There should either be life on Venus as well, or there is a chemical process waiting to be discovered.Janusz Petkowski, co-author and EAPS Research
PH3 was found using spectroscopy, the study of how light interacts with molecules. When sunlight passes through Venus’s atmosphere, each molecule absorbs specific colours of this light. Using telescopes on Earth, this light can be split into a rainbow and distinctive pattern of dark absorption lines are formed, like an identifying barcode.
But PH3 Can Also Be Found In Jupiter
On a gas giant like Jupiter, there’s enough energy for phosphine to form abiotically, without the presence of living beings. However, on a rocky planet like Venus, phosphine can’t be produced on its own. Earth was till now, the only terrestrial planet to have PH3.
So Is There Life On Other Planets?
Always a possibility. Scientists would continue to find biosignatures like PH3, which can be any elements or phenomenons that provides scientific evidence of past or present life in the galaxy. They will also try and map out PH3 to study the daily and seasonal cycles on Venus.
Gear Up Your Space Suits For VERITAS!
A proposed new mission by NASA, VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography & Spectroscopy) would study Venus’ geology, both below and on the surface. Its proposed launch date is 2026, with a mission duration of 3 years.
- Venus is the Roman goddess of love and beauty. The second planet from the Sun, Venus, is named after her. Venus is sometimes called Earth’s “sister planet” because of their similar size, mass, proximity to the Sun, and bulk composition.
- Biosphere 2 is an American Earth system science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona. It was originally constructed between 1987 and 1991 with the mission to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching, and lifelong learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. It remains the largest closed system ever created.
- A pancake dome is an unusual type of lava dome found on the planet Venus. They are widely scattered on that planet and often form groups or clusters, though with smaller numbers of pancake domes in each group than is typical for the more common shield volcanoes. Pancake domes are between 10 and 100 times larger than volcanic domes formed on Earth.
- Earth Sky – A proposed new mission to Venus
- The Wire – Finding Phosphine on Venus – and the Prospect of Alien Life
- Liebert Pub – The Venusian Lower Atmosphere Haze as a Depot for Desiccated Microbial Life
- Wikipedia – List of missions to Venus
- Universe Today – Did Scientists Just Find Signs of Life on Venus?