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Phosphine, an Intriguing Molecule, Detected Once Again in Venus’ Clouds—Could It Indicate Life?

There’s a new chapter in the Venus phosphine debate.

The Ongoing Venus Phosphine Saga Unfolds

Back in September 2020, an intriguing revelation emerged as a team of scientists led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University in Wales detected phosphine, a potential marker of life, within Venus’ clouds. This groundbreaking announcement ignited a passionate debate and prompted numerous subsequent studies, most of which failed to confirm the presence of this captivating molecule in the atmosphere of Venus.

However, a recent development has added a new twist to the story. During the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting 2023 held in Cardiff, Greaves disclosed the latest findings that unveil phosphine’s existence deeper within Venus’ atmosphere than ever before. By utilizing the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) located at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, Greaves and her team delved into Venus’ atmosphere, exploring both its upper and middle cloud layers.

The team speculates that the phosphine might originate from lower regions of Venus’ atmosphere. Nevertheless, as Greaves emphasized in her presentation, the essential question remains: What implications does the presence of phosphine hold? Could it provide evidence of extraterrestrial life thriving on Venus?

Greaves noted that on Earth, phosphine is produced by microorganisms inhabiting environments with extremely low oxygen levels. She further explained that phosphine is not typically generated through other means on our planet due to the scarcity of “free” hydrogen. Consequently, if phosphine is detected on other celestial bodies, it could potentially serve as a biosignature.

This is precisely why the potential discovery of phosphine on Venus stirred such excitement three years ago. Surprisingly, the notion of life existing on our neighboring “sister planet” is not as far-fetched as one might assume. While Venus’ surface is unforgivingly inhospitable, reaching scorching temperatures of approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit (475 degrees Celsius), conditions within the clouds, situated about 30 miles (50 kilometers) above, are considerably milder and more reminiscent of Earth.

Nevertheless, even if phosphine does exist in Venus’ atmosphere, it does not necessarily imply the presence of life on the planet. Abiotic processes, some of which remain not entirely understood, could also account for the production of phosphine on Venus.

Greaves highlighted an alternative perspective during her presentation, stating, “There’s a prevailing idea that you can generate phosphine by propelling phosphorus-containing rocks into the upper atmosphere, subjecting them to water, acid, and other agents, ultimately resulting in the formation of phosphine gas.”

2020: When all hell broke loose on Venus

Greaves approaches the prospect of igniting a similar uproar to the one caused by her team’s initial phosphine detection three years ago with caution.

Reflecting on the genesis of the search for phosphine within Venus’ atmosphere and the subsequent 2020 scenario, she revealed that the decision to explore Venus was influenced by the examination of other celestial bodies in our solar system, such as Saturn, as well as advancements in telescope technology that enabled the investigation of smaller planets’ atmospheres.

“I vaguely recalled that Venus was considered to have a potential habitable environment in its high clouds, which is anaerobic. When we secured telescope time, I thought, ‘Why not quickly examine if there are any phosphates in Venus’ clouds, similar to the analog of Earth’s surface organisms?'” Greaves recounted. “Astoundingly, we discovered it, and chaos ensued!”

The potential detection triggered a flurry of subsequent research, including studies conducted by teams involving scientists who were part of the initial phosphine discovery. However, these endeavors failed to reproduce the presence of the molecule. Consequently, the latest findings from Greaves and her team are expected to instigate even more investigations in the future.

The ongoing debate may soon find resolution, as Venus has emerged as a top priority in planetary science and astrobiology. Notably, two NASA missions, named VERITAS and DAVINCI, along with Europe’s EnVision orbiter, are slated for launch towards Venus within the next decade. DAVINCI will deploy a descent probe to closely examine the Venusian atmosphere as it descends through it.

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