On Monday, a team of scientists reported the detection of phosphine gas (an atom of phosphorus on top of three atoms of hydrogen) high up in Venus’ atmosphere, a chemical signature whose source might be a form of life. They recorded it in small amounts, ranging from 5 to 20 parts per billion (0.005 to 0.02 mg/L) which is still about a thousand times the amount found in Earth’s atmosphere.
Although Venus was once suspected to host life (when it once was covered in water and was coated in an atmosphere auspicious for the development of life), the planet’s surface temperature culminates today at a burning 450 degrees Celsius and has thus been widely overlooked in scientists’ search for extraterrestrial life.
Furthermore, its dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide, heavily weighing down on the planet however, despite these conditions, more suitable ones were suspected to be found higher up in the atmosphere where the ambient temperature oscillates around 30 degrees celsius.
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What does this evidence suggest?
The gas which was recently detected by the high-powered telescope is reportedly highly toxic but is believed to be the product of an organism’s metabolic activity. Phosphine gas has long been marked as a biosignature (any substance that provides scientific evidence of past or present life) and in the case of Venus, it has provisionally been labeled as such in lack of a better alternative.
In the case of larger planets like Saturn and Jupiter, phosphine gas might well have been the product of phosphorus atoms being thrust together due to high pressure and temperature. However, a small planet like Venus does not contain enough energy to yield such amounts of phosphine. As such, anaerobic microbial life (which does not require oxygen for growth) might be the solution but scientists have yet to explain how and why these organisms would engage in such production.
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On the other hand, as the source is not firmly confirmed and the planet has been extensively overlooked in the past, the explanation might lie in some undiscovered geological activity on Venus’ surface which would be able to constantly replenish the detected atmospheric content of phosphine.
What are the repercussions of such a finding?
Despite the uncertainties which still lie around the claims issued on Monday, this bit of information will most definitely move Venus much higher up on the priority list in the search for life on exoplanets and fuel or finance vaster research programs for the planet which had been neglected as our focus was set on Mars or Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.
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