The phosphine mystery of Venus deepens – the Atlantic
Oh, Venus. What’s wrong with you?
I am, of course, referring to the planet Venus, the second from the Sun, right next to Earth. The planet with an oven-like surface and clouds of sulfuric acid, which shows up in our night sky as a golden jewel and which helped to prove the theory that the sun and not the earth was at the center of the solar system. Although Venus has been captivating viewers for centuries, the planet remains a bit mysterious, its peculiarities are hidden. There is still so much that scientists want to know about our planetary neighbor. Especially now. Talk to us, Venus!
The most recent, restless search for new knowledge began last September when scientists announced they’d discovered evidence of a gas called phosphine floating in the clouds of Venus. The surprise: According to what is known about phosphine, the gas is not supposed to survive very long in the planet’s atmosphere. On earth, phosphine was found in the intestines of Animals, including us, and in swampy communities of Microorganisms. The group of scientists concluded that something must replenish Venus’ supply – perhaps a mysterious Venusian life form.
Venus immediately became one of the most exciting destinations in the search for life beyond Earth. But the phosphine evidence was a flare of evidence, not definitive evidence, and the flashy discovery turned into a slow-burning debate as other scientists joined in. Some researchers said their own analyzes were void for phosphine. Others found evidence of phosphine hidden in decades-old observations. Still others argued that the signal corresponds to a completely different gas. The original team stuck to its conclusions even after an error in the telescope data forced researchers to revise the amount of phosphine they discovered. Since then, new scientific papers have surfaced regularly that steer the discussion in one direction or another.
The latest entry suggests a pretty explosive one Explanation: If there is phosphine in the clouds of Venus, it is probably not due to extraterrestrials, but to volcanoes.
Two researchers say that very explosive volcanic eruptions could spew phosphorus compounds from the depths of the Earth’s mantle into the sky, where they could react with sulfuric acid and other elements to form phosphine. In order for phosphine to exist at the heights at which the gas was discovered, it takes an event comparable to one of the most devastating eruptions in recorded geological history – the 1883 Krakatau eruption, which covered most of the Indonesian island in the sea sunk. There is no need to consider cloud hopping microorganisms in this scenario. “The amount of volcanic material you really need for the phosphine hypothesis is quite small compared to what we think the active volcanoes on Venus could produce,” said Ngoc Truong, a planetary geologist at Cornell University and one of the authors of the new paper told me.
As with most phosphine-related papers, not everyone is convinced. The researchers behind the original discovery don’t believe the volcano’s explanation will work and had ruled it out back in September when they went public with the phosphine discovery. “We don’t believe that plume volcanism in the deep mantle can produce enough phosphine to explain the observations,” Janusz Petkowski, an astrobiologist at MIT, told me.
The volcano hypothesis is particularly complicated because we do not know exactly whether there are active volcanoes on Venus. It certainly did at some point; The surface of the planet is made up of a tapestry a volcanic past, its surface is bundled into peaks in some places and smoothed by lava in others. We also don’t know the exact chemical composition of Venus. Some close-ups of the planet have been made before recommended that the planet’s volcanoes are still at work, but scientists cannot say for sure without further research.
Team Alien and Team Volcano differ in a few ways. Petkowski says we do not know whether these phosphorus compounds in the mantle of Venus will remain unchanged on their way out of the deep; perhaps the eruption will change them so that when they reach the clouds they cannot be converted to phosphine. Even if these chemicals get into the sky, according to Petkowski and his colleagues, it is actually not clear whether their interactions with the sulfuric acid in the clouds of Venus would produce phosphine. But Truong says laboratory studies of chemical processes have shown that such phosphine production might be possible, and that the other researchers eliminated the volcanic option because they believe the phenomenon requires much more volcanic activity than is actually necessary.
Other researchers I spoke to said that while they are not entirely convinced of the volcanic scenario, they welcome the contribution to the phosphine debate. It seems advisable to continue exploring the possibility of nonbiological origins if biological origins were to turn our understanding of life in the universe upside down. As I have already written, the work of planetary science – like all sciences – is supposed to be a little scramble, full of it may bes and maybe nots, and this is still unfolding. Some disagreements are due to differences in the data researchers use and how they interpret it, and some to the fact that our understanding of Venus is incomplete, says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute who studied the possibility of life on Venus. “Our estimates of the rate of volcanic outgassing and the likely composition of volcanic gases are currently only guesswork,” Grinspoon told me.
It is expected that our image of Venus will soon become sharper. Last month, NASA selected two new spacecraft to travel to Venus for the space agency’s first missions to the planet in more than 30 years. Only one spacecraft – a Japanese probe – is currently in orbit around Venus, and scientists believe the planet is long overdue for more attention. One of NASA’s missions due to start at the end of the decade could prove once and for all whether volcanoes are erupting, or at least in the more recent past.
Would this discovery strengthen the volcano hypothesis against the extraterrestrial? Possibly. But the discovery of volcanoes rumbling over Venus could boost habitability in other ways, says Rakesh Mogul, a biochemistry professor at Cal Poly Pomona, who found potential evidence of phosphine in archival data from 1978 from NASA’s most recent Venus mission . On earth, volcanoes have helped set the stage for life to arise. Eject the materials that helped establish itself and flourish. Atmospheric phosphine, Mogul told me, “could be used as fuel for potential microorganisms either now or in the past.” But of course that’s just another hypothesis.