A Private Mission to Scan the Cloud Tops of Venus for Evidence of Life

The search for life on Venus has a fascinating history. Carl Sagan famously and sarcastically said there were obviously dinosaurs there since a thick haze we couldn’t see through covered the surface. More recently, evidence has pointed to a more nuanced idea of how life might exist on our sister planet. A recent announcement of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere caused quite a stir in the research community and numerous denials from other research groups. But science moves on, and now some of the researchers involved in the phosphine finding have come up with a series of small missions that will help settle the question more thoroughly – by directly sampling Venus’ atmosphere for the first time in almost 40 years.

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What Looked Like Phosphine On Venus Might Actually Just Be Sulfur Dioxide

There’s nothing like a good old fashioned science fight.  When the discovery being challenged is one of the most public and intriguing of the last year, it’s bound to be even more interesting.  A team of scientists, led by Andrew Lincowski and Victoria Meadows at the University of Washington (UW), and involving members from a variety of NASA labs and other universities, has challenged the discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus that was first announced last year.  Their explanation is much simpler: it was most likely sulfur dioxide, one of the most abundant materials already known to be in Venus’ atmosphere.

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Scientists Have Re-Analyzed Their Data and Still See a Signal of Phosphine at Venus. Just Less of it

In September, an international team announced that based on data obtained by the Atacama Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii, they had discovered phosphine gas (PH3) in the atmosphere of Venus. The news was met with its fair share of skepticism and controversy since phosphine is considered a possible indication of life (aka. a biosignature).

Shortly thereafter, a series of papers were published that questioned the observations and conclusions, with one team going as far as to say there was “no phosphine” in Venus’ atmosphere at all. Luckily, after re-analyzing the ALMA data, the team responsible for the original discovery concluded that there is indeed phosphine in the cloud tops of Venus – just not as much as they initially thought.

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