The on-again, off-again detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus appears to be off-again – for now. The latest study, based on data from the SOFIA telescope, reveals that the flying observatory didn’t see any signs of phosphine. According to the results, if there is any phosphine present in Venus’s atmosphere at all, it’s a maximum of about 0.8 parts per billion, much smaller than the initial estimate.
However, the team that made the initial detection of phosphine, which was announced in 2020, disagrees with the researchers’ interpretation of the SOFIA data.
The tantalizing possibility that life exists in the clouds of Venus is once again causing a stir amongst planetary scientists this week. Researchers out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University, and the University of Cambridge have proposed that some longstanding ‘anomalies’ in the composition of Venus’ atmosphere might be explained by the presence of ammonia. But ammonia itself would be a strange compound to discover there, unless some unknown process – such as biological life – was actively producing it. Perhaps more intriguingly, ammonia can remove the acidity from Venus’ hostile cloud-tops, suggesting that an airborne, ammonia-producing microbe might have evolved the ability to turn its hostile surroundings into something habitable.
Ever since the announcement last September that astronomers found evidence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, the planet has been getting a lot of attention. It’s not surprising. Phosphine is a potential biosignature: On Earth, it is produced by microbial life. Might a similar biological process be taking place in the skies of our sister planet? It’s a tantalizing prospect, and is definitely worth examining closely, but it’s too early to be sure. Microbes aren’t the only way to get phosphine. A new paper published on July 12th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that volcanism might instead be to blame for the strange chemistry in the Venusian cloud tops.
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.
In September, a team of scientists reported finding phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine can be a biomarker and is here on Earth. But it’s also present on Jupiter, where it’s produced abiotically. The discovery led to conjecture about what kind of life might survive in Venus’ atmosphere, continually producing the easily-degraded phosphine.
The authors of that study were circumspect about their own results, saying that they hope someone can determine a source for the phosphine, other than life.
Now a new study says that the original phosphine detection is not statistically significant.
Does it feel like all eyes are on Venus these days? The discovery of the potential biomarker phosphine in the planet’s upper atmosphere last month garnered a lot of attention, as it should. There’s still some uncertainty around what the phosphine discovery means, though.
Now a team of researchers claims they’ve discovered the amino acid glycine in Venus’ atmosphere.
The discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere has generated a lot of interest. It has the potential to be a biosignature, though since the discovery, some researchers have thrown cold water on that idea.
But it looks, at least, like the discovery is real, and that one of NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft detected the elusive gas back in 1978. And though it’s not necessarily a biosignature, the authors of a new study think that we need to rethink the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere.
The detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere was one of those quintessential moments in space science. It was an unexpected discovery, and when combined with our incomplete understanding of planetary science, and our wistful hopefulness around the discovery of life, the result was a potent mix that lit up internet headlines.
As always, some of the headlines were a bit of an over-reach. But that’s the way it goes.
At the heart of it all, there is compelling science. And the same, overarching question that keeps popping up: Are we alone?