The Detection of Phosphine in Venus’ Clouds Is a Big Deal – Here’s How We Can Find Out if It’s a Sign of Life

Planet Venus Magellan Pioneer Composite

A radar mosaic image of Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On September 14, 2020, a new planet was added to the list of potentially habitable worlds in the Solar System: Venus.

Phosphine, a toxic gas made up of one phosphorus and three hydrogen atoms (PH₃), commonly produced by organic life forms but otherwise difficult to make on rocky planets, was discovered in the middle layer of the Venus atmosphere. This raises the tantalizing possibility that something is alive on our planetary neighbor. With this discovery, Venus joins the exalted ranks of Mars and the icy moons Enceladus and Europa among planetary bodies where life may once have existed, or perhaps might even still do so today.

I’m a planetary scientist and something of a Venus evangelical. This discovery is one of the most exciting made about Venus in a very long time — and opens up a new set of possibilities for further exploration in search of life in the Solar System.

Venus Infrared Akatsuki

Venus as seen in the infrared by the Japanese Akatsuki spacecraft. The warm colors are from the hot lower atmosphere glowing through the cooler cloud layers above. Credit: JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic. JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

Atmospheric mysteries

First, it’s critical to point out that this detection does not mean that astronomers have found alien life in the clouds of Venus. Far from it, in fact.

Although the discovery team identified phosphine at Venus with two different telescopes, helping to confirm the initial detection, phosphine gas can result from several processes that are unrelated to life, such as lightning, meteor impacts or even volcanic activity.

However, the quantity of phosphine detected in the Venusian clouds seems to be far greater than those processes are capable of generating, allowing the team to rule out numerous inorganic possibilities. But our understanding of the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere is sorely lacking: Only a handful of missions have plunged through the inhospitable, carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere to take samples among the global layer of sulfuric acid clouds.

So we planetary scientists are faced with two possibilities: Either there is some sort of life in the Venus clouds, generating phosphine, or there is unexplained and unexpected chemistry taking place there. How do we find out which it is?

Soviet Vega 1 Spacecraft

A model of the Soviet Vega 1 spacecraft at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport. Vega 1 carried a balloon to Venus on its way to visit Halley’s Comet in 1985. Credit: Daderot

First and foremost, we need more information about the abundance of PH₃ in the Venus atmosphere, and we can learn something about this from Earth. Just as the discovery team did, existing telescopes capable of detecting phosphine around Venus can be used for follow-up observations, to both definitively confirm the initial finding and figure out if the amount of PH₃ in the atmosphere changes with time. In parallel, there is now a huge opportunity to carry out lab work to better understand the types of chemical reactions that might be possible on Venus — for which we have very limited information at present.

ALMA Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes

Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope, on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes. The telescope was used to confirm the initial detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. Credit: ESO/C. Malin

Once more unto the breach

But measurements on and from Earth can take us only so far. To really get to the heart of this mystery, we need to go back to Venus. Spacecraft equipped with spectrometers that can detect phosphine from orbit could be dispatched to the second planet with the express purpose of characterizing where, and how much, of this gas is there. Because spacecraft can survive for many years in Venus’ orbit, we could obtain continuous observations with a dedicated orbiter over a much longer period than with telescopes on Earth.

Aerial Platform at Venus.

A concept for an aerial platform at Venus. Two connected balloons could take turns to inflate, allowing the balloon to control the altitude at which it floats. An instrument package would then hang from below the balloons. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But even orbital data can’t tell us the whole story. To fully get a handle on what’s happening at Venus, we have to actually get into the atmosphere. And that’s where aerial platforms come in. Capable of operating above much of the acidic cloud layer – where the temperature and pressure are almost Earthlike – for potentially months at a time, balloons or flying wings could take detailed atmospheric composition measurements there. These craft could even carry the kinds of instruments being developed to look for life on Europa. At that point, humanity might finally be able to definitively tell if we share our Solar System with Venusian life.

A new dawn for Venus exploration?

Thirty-one years have elapsed since the United States last sent a dedicated mission to Venus. That could soon change as NASA considers two of four missions in the late 2020s targeting Venus. One, called VERITAS, would carry a powerful radar to peer through the thick clouds and return unprecedented high-resolution images of the surface. The other, DAVINCI+, would plunge through the atmosphere, sampling the air as it descended, perhaps even able to sniff any phosphine present. NASA plans to pick at least one mission in April 2021.

I have argued before for a return to Venus, and will continue to do so. Even without this latest scientific discovery, Venus is a compelling exploration target, with tantalizing evidence that the planet once had oceans and perhaps even suffered a hellish fate at the hands of its own volcanic eruptions.

But with the detection of a potential biomarker in Venus’ atmosphere, we now have yet another major reason to return to the world ancient Greek astronomers called Phosphorus — a name for Venus that, it turns out, is wonderfully prescient.

Written by Paul K. Byrne, Associate Professor of Planetary Science at North Carolina State University.

Adapted from an article originally published on The Conversation.The Conversation

3 Comments on "The Detection of Phosphine in Venus’ Clouds Is a Big Deal – Here’s How We Can Find Out if It’s a Sign of Life"

  1. Sekar Vedaraman | October 11, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Reply

    In addition to above, how about some contratrian thinking for a chamge.

    The One fact that we do know is Life ( Carbon and Water Based ) does exist on the third rock from the Sun. Let us turn the high resolution cameras from deep space and the latest spectrometers and other devices and train the same on Planet Earth , and use that as the baseline for other Rocks ( Planets & Moons and Asteroids and other Physical Visible) that are floating around in the Solar System for a start AND alos all the other Exo-Planets we have discovered till date. This way, we can be more confident that at least the possibility of Carbon- Based Lfe Forms existing on such Rocks and the probability of the same can be benchmarked!

    However, this will only give us limited information as we do not know if other more complex Life Forms have evolved in Other Worlds whivch are based on other elements in the 14th Vertical Column of the Periodic Table, which is a distinct Possibility. The Possibility of Other Life Forms evolving from Other Elements in the periodic table can also not be ruled out in the extreme environments in the Galaxy and the Known Universe.

    Further the distinct Possibility also exists of Life Forms having Evolved in Other Worlds and other Dimensions which are based on more than the current Space – Time Dimensions we have limited our thinking to. The Mathematics of the existence of Higher Dimensions needs to be understood and solved before we can make such a jump and a leap of faith and it can be established that the existence of Conscious Life Forms in such environments is a distict possibility or can be conclusively ruled out.

    My belief and theory is that there are infinite number of dimensions and there are infinite points of time which exist in perpetuity and unless we understandand solve the mathematics of Infinite – Infinite, we will be unable to recognise the real nature of the Universe which we are limiting to the exploration of physical plane , which is another major shortcoming of Science.

    Hope this makes sense to the Brilliant Scientists. Have always admired the work o f many of the brilliant Scientists like, Einstien, Bhor, Roger Perose, Hawkins and countless other Gaints who have come before us in all the specialty areas of Science.

    The shortcoming is probably the fact that they limited their thinking to the Known – Known Quadrant, as today’s, Science is based on evidence and physical proof , as it should be.
    However the Science of the Other Three Quadrants is not expored by Humanity to the extent it could be. These include the Known – Unknown, Unknown – Known and Unknown- Unknown Quadrants.

    These can only be accessed by us Humans when we are asleep. The Known – Unknown is where we experience REM sleep and find innovations and solutions to problems using our sub-conscious mind which is searching for answers and also come up with Risk Management Solutions for premonitions of disasters (maybe we get a glimpse of future events) and hunches (which result in Innovations) , which can be converted to real products and services in the Known – Known “Real World” where we are both in the Conscious Awake State during our waking hours.

    Then there is the Unknown – Known Quadrant. This is probably the Quadrant where we get deep sleep and awake refreshed as we do not know what the future holds and whatever it may be we we do not bother, as we recognize our mortality and puny nature and live life in the Conscious Waking state without any hangups.

    Finally there is the Unknown – Unknown Quadrant . This is the state of Sleep where we are Unconscious and havent a Clue about the Unknown as we are completely ignorant of the same. This is probablly the state which we as Mortals may not have the ability to access – except for a few enlightened souls Most of us will Nver Ever access this stateand this may be the quadrant where ” God ” Resides in all his Glory.

    People who have reached this state of wisdom vide the path of Knowledge or the other three paths, have attained enlightenment and the instances of such individuals who have attained enlightenmant are few in Human History. Such People have followers / disciples/ apostles and build a “religion and or cult” among their followers and attempt to convert others to their belief systems.

    Long POst. Hope Humanity will use this insight for creating a better and more equitable world.

  2. I’m predicting Venus will be found to have equatorial cooling and mid-latitude warming.

  3. Book of Thomas (1519) Satan he was hurled to earth and his angels with him
    …. Star clusters, fallen angels, stone dragons ,mountains ,landmass .

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