Phosphorus on Venus could be the key to finding extraterrestrial life

Phosphine is a colorless, flammable toxic gas with an odor similar to that of rotting fish. Humans produce it for use in pest control and the manufacture of computer chips. But it is also waste from a type of “abiotic” microorganisms that live in an oxygen-free environment. Its presence is a potential sign that something is alive.

The gas with the chemical name PH3 has become at the center of heated debates among scientists regarding life: what it is, what it needs to survive, and where it might be located elsewhere in the world. The universe.

On the one hand are scientists and their supporters who, a year ago, announced that they had detectable signature of phosphine in the practically uninhabitable atmosphere of Venus – the second planet from the sun most famous for its boiling, 800-degree Fahrenheit surface and thick clouds of not water but acid. Intentionally or not, these researchers have raised alarms that we may have detected signs of extraterrestrial life on another world.

On the other side are critics who have credibly questioned the science behind the original phosphine claim. And between the two camps lies a powerful mediator: the top NASA scientist, who recently wrote a paper to resolve the increasingly acrimonious debate about a highly pungent gas and its harmful presence. its possible presence on Venus, and urges scientists to look for extraterrestrial life a little more carefully.

Now, a new group of scientists — including several members of the team that placed phosphine on Venus for the first time — are stepping back, taking a deep breath, and trying to understand what they describe as an important argument. and is happening. Preprints of their paper went online last week. They write: “One year after the initial announcement, the tentative discovery of PH3 in the clouds of Venus continues to attract much interest and controversy.

Janusz Petkowski, an expert on so-called “biospecific gases” at MIT, and a colleague might think the Venus phosphine story is over. author of both the original phosphate article and the latest one, told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the case,” Petkowski added. “The story of Venus’ phosphine is very vivid and the subject of fierce scientific debate.”

Back in 2019, a team led by astronomer Jane Greaves at Cardiff University in the UK had a hunch. Sifting through images of Venus collected by colleagues looking through the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, the team found what they suspect may be a visual signature of phosphates in the atmosphere. Venus’s dense, toxic atmosphere.

“Our generation may in fact be the ones to discover evidence of life beyond Earth.”

– Jim Green

So Greaves’ team commanded the Atacama Large Millimeter/Millimetre Array in Chile and pointed it at Venus specifically to look for phosphates. A year later, in September 2020, the team announced the world breaking news: They had found phosphine. And revolutionary effects.

Yes, Greaves and company wrote in nature, “There are currently no known abiotic production routes [for phosphine] in the atmosphere, clouds, surface, and subsurface of Venus, or from the distribution of lightning, volcanoes, or meteorites. “While phosphine “may originate from an unknown photochemical or geochemical process,” a better explanation may be “the presence of life.”

Greaves did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The astronomy community was buzzing with this news. But the excitement quickly turned to skepticism. Petkowski and his co-authors explain: “The community still considers Venus as the least likely habitable habitable place. Europa and Enceladus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively, appear to be more microbiologically friendly, as do Mars and Titan, another of Saturn’s moons.

Petkowski’s team writes: “This skepticism stems from the fact that the Venusian environment presents many challenges for life. Specifically, there is the fact that Venus is enveloped in clouds of sulfuric acid.

Doubts deepened a few quarters as scientists examined the work of the Greaves team. Some point out that ALMA is not the best tool for examining an object as bright as Venus. The scrutiny forced Greaves and company to double-check their data and publish some minor corrections to their original paper.

Surname admit. But they still concluded that there could be phosphine on Venus, and that it could be evidence of “life in a supersonic biosphere.”

The debate was so intense that Jim Green, NASA’s principal scientist, felt compelled to participate. In a piece of paper published year nature on October 27, Green proposed what he describes as “framework for reporting evidence of extraterrestrial life. ”

“Our generation may in fact be the ones to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life,” Green wrote. “With potential this privilege comes responsibility.” To avoid premature claims based on preliminary research, the NASA scientist called on his colleagues – as well as members of the press – to make claims about extraterrestrial life up to the point of proof. demonstrate seven steps, from level one (interesting) to level seven (definitely).

Venusian phosphine is still a “first-class measurement,” Green told The Daily Beast. “Why are we promoting it or talking about it as if it were a fifth grade event?”

“The importance of the question of whether we are alone in the universe, and the interest of the community there, open up the possibility that the results may imply more than supporting observations, or than the observers intended,” Green wrote. In other words, scientists should think long and hard before claiming they have found evidence of aliens, even if they are just microorganisms. Mistakes are too important.

Totally unclear about Greaves and her team do Get it wrong, Petkowski and his colleagues insist. After examining Greaves’ data in a few different ways, they concluded “there is strongly suggestive evidence from two independent methods that phosphine is present in the clouds of Venus.”

The next question, of course, is where the phosphates come from. Avi Loeb, a Harvard University physicist, told The Daily Beast, there is still no consensus on whether phosphine “can be produced by natural processes.

Some scientists think that the gas that Greaves and her team detected may in part be a byproduct of volcanic eruptions. “Although Greaves’ early phosphine research [and her team] estimates that the amount of phosphine detected is too high to be contributed only by volcanic eruptions, which would certainly be a contributing factor, if currently occurring on Venus,” said Siddharth Krishnamoorthy, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told The Daily Beast.

Thermal morphology of the Idunn Mons peak in the Imdr Regio region of Venus.


In addition to volcanism, Petkowski and his coauthors evaluated all of the other major, possibly non-biological, sources of phosphorus on Venus: lightning, meteorite impacts, solar wind, and periodic chemical processes strange in the atmosphere.

They wrote. “None of the processes examined produced sufficient amounts of PH3 to explain the…abundance observed.” That is in line with what the Greaves investigation initially concluded last year.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there must be life on Venus. It has that is, despite skepticism in certain corners of the astronomical world, we cannot rule out the possibility of life on Venus. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astronomer at the Technical University of Berlin, told The Daily Beast: “A chemical explanation seems more likely, but biology should not be dismissed as a possible explanation. exam.

Yes, Venus is very unpleasant to life as we know it. But it could be relevant for some life forms that we don’t currently know about. Life may have found a way to adapt to that planet’s acidic atmosphere, says Schulze-Makuch.

It will take more exploration, and closer observation, to work out what’s going on in the acid clouds of the second planet from the sun. Petkowski and his team don’t think we’ll get any real solution to the phosphate question until we actually study it firsthand. In other words, we need to send a probe to Venus.

Fortunately, there are two in development. The Deep Atmosphere Imaging and Atmospheric Investigations Mission, or DAVINCI+, aims to scan Venus’s atmosphere with a spherical probe that will plunge through the planet’s atmosphere, sampling the atmosphere indelible gas “to understand why Venus’s atmosphere is a runaway compared to Earth,” based on NASA.

At the same time, the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Terrain and Spectroscopy probe — or VERITAS — will orbit Venus and use infrared sensors and onboard radar to scan the planet.

The probes are scheduled to launch around 2029 and reach Venus a few years later. Perhaps then we can begin to settle the argument that began a year ago with the bold claim of a curious gas on a seemingly uninhabitable planet. Phosphorus on Venus could be the key to finding extraterrestrial life


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