Since the dawn of history, mankind has been on the search for signs of life outside of Earth. Every quest past the boundaries of our knowledge, from studying microscopic organisms to the content of the moon, has been to quench our thirst for answers. Until recently, in the search for answers to life outside of Earth, Venus was largely overlooked, but a fascinating, recent finding could unleash and spark future studies on our neighboring planet.
Venus is our solar system’s hottest planet with average temperatures of 460 degrees Celsius (around 860 degrees Fahrenheit). Its atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide but also contains sulfuric acid. Venus’ atmosphere also is over 90 times denser than the Earth’s. This contributes to making Venus the hottest planet as the green-house effect is highly prevalent under these conditions.
With such stark differences between Earth and Venus, it is no wonder that scientists’ attention was turned to bodies that are more similar to Earth. However, recent detections of phosphine have ignited talk about the possibility of life on Venus.
Phosphine is a gas that on Earth is produced from biological processes such as bacteria in anaerobic environments or can be artificially manufactured. Structurally, it is three hydrogen atoms bonded to phosphorus. For scientists, it is the possibility of phosphine being emitted from biological processes that intrigues them since a biological process implies life. However, only twenty molecules of phosphine were found for every billion molecules, a relatively minute quantity. Nonetheless, there is phosphine, irrespective of the quantity, so perhaps mankind is a step closer to discovering extraterrestrial life. All of this boils down to one question: does the presence of phosphine indicate the presence of microbes and thus life on Venus?
Though phosphine may be produced from biological processes, some argue that the phosphine may have been produced in other ways. For example, Ngoc Truong and Jonathan I. Lunine authored a study in which “[they] hypothesize that trace amounts of phosphides formed in the mantle would be brought to the surface by volcanism, and then subsequently ejected into the atmosphere, where they could react with water or sulfuric acid to form phosphine.”
Others claim that phosphine may not be present on Venus’ surface altogether. A group of scientists challenged the finding of phosphine by re-analyzing ALMA data and finding the results “statistically unreliable.” In their paper, they explain how “ALMA observations presented by GRB20 provide several arguments to support the validity of their identification of the PH3 feature, including a comparison to the JCMT data and a test at offset frequencies. [Their] analysis, however, shows that at least a handful of spurious features can be obtained with [the other] method, and therefore conclude that the presented analysis does not provide a solid basis to infer the presence of PH3 in the Venus atmosphere.”
It is also important to note that Venus is not the first planet for phosphine to be found in; phosphine has been found in Jupiter, Saturn, and of course, Earth. What scientists are striving to understand, though, is whether the phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere is caused by geological, chemical, biological, or other processes. If phosphine was produced by the more exciting possibility, a biological process, it begs the question of how microbial life managed to arrive on Venus in the first place. One theory is that microbes appeared when Venus had oceans several hundred years ago, but after the oceans dried up, the microbes took refuge in the sky.
Although it may seem like these contradicting studies extinguish the chance of finding life on Venus, that is not the case. In researching and discovering anything, contradicting data and studies will be present, and even if the contradicting data proves to be correct, it is a healthy progression that advances our knowledge of science. For example, if future studies indeed establish phosphine is not a result of biological processes, then our understanding of science will improve. By the same token, if future studies prove the presence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere is a result of biological processes, our understanding of science will still improve.
Ultimately, though all of these findings are relatively new, one thing is certain: the search for life on Venus will develop and expand. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine himself said it is “time to prioritize Venus.” Perhaps spacecraft in the near future may provide more information about the phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. Until then, mankind will have to wait.
Saharsh Satheesh, Youth Medical Journal 2020
“All About Venus.” NASA, NASA, 2 June 2020, spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-venus/en/.
Gough, Evan. “Maybe Volcanoes Could Explain the Phosphine in Venus’ Atmosphere.” Universe Today, 30 Sept. 2020, www.universetoday.com/148094/maybe-volcanoes-could-explain-the-phosphine-in-venus-atmosphere/.
“NASA Mulls Venus Mission after Recent Discoveries.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 17 Sept. 2020, news.yahoo.com/nasa-mulls-venus-mission-recent-201520659.html.
O’Neill, Mike. “Signs of Life on Venus? What This Means for Earthlings.” SciTechDaily, 31 Oct. 2020, scitechdaily.com/signs-of-life-on-venus-what-this-means-for-earthlings/.
O’Neill, Mike. “What Is Phosphine and Why Does It Point to Extra-Terrestrial Life Floating in the Clouds of Venus?” SciTechDaily, 22 Sept. 2020, scitechdaily.com/what-is-phosphine-and-why-does-it-point-to-extra-terrestrial-life-floating-in-the-clouds-of-venus/.
Patel, Neel V. “Not Finding Life on Venus Would Be Disappointing. But It’s Good Science at Work.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 30 Oct. 2020, www.technologyreview.com/2020/10/31/1011487/not-finding-life-on-venus-disappointing-good-science-phosphine-biosignature/.
Re-Analysis of the 267-GHz ALMA Observations of Venus. 21 Oct. 2020, arxiv.org/pdf/2010.09761.pdf.
Siegel, Ethan. “Don’t Bet On Aliens: Phosphine Is Amazing, But Doesn’t Mean ‘Life On Venus’.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Sept. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2020/09/15/dont-bet-on-aliens-phosphine-is-amazing-but-doesnt-mean-life-on-venus/?sh=601f03674fbc.
Stirone, Shannon, et al. “Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/science/venus-life-clouds.html.