Mapping the secrets of life within our sister planet

Phosphine, an indicator for life, has been discovered on Venus


Courtesy of the NYTimes

New discoveries indicate that life may be possible on the planet Venus.

Kevin Pataroque, Staff Reporter

Deep within the toxic clouds covering the surface of Venus, astronomers noticed an irregularity. When they recollected data and matched the peak to other studies, they found out that they were detecting phosphine, a bioindicator emitted by biological activity on Earth. 

Moments after the study was published, all major news outlets reported that life may exist on Venus. It’s been groundbreaking for astronomers, who have been searching on planetary bodies, such as Europa, which contain frozen water.

Ray Garner, a Solar System Ambassador at NASA and a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University who researches the formation of stars in distant galaxies, says that certain areas of Venus may foster life, but the planet as a whole cannot.  

While Venus is of a similar size and mass of the Earth, the sister planet has key traits that characterize it as “the hellish twin.” Temperatures on Venus can exceed 500 degrees Celsius. In addition, the atmospheric pressure is 100 times larger than Earth’s pressure, and causes sulfuric acid to evaporate and condense in a process similar to the water cycle on Earth. To put it in context, Garner said, “If you were to hold a pizza on Venus out your spacecraft window, it would cook for 3 minutes in your hand.”

So why was phosphine detected on Venus, instead of other planets suspected of containing life?

Certain areas on the surface of Venus are cooler than others—one sliver of the atmosphere dips down to a chilly 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, certain bacteria can use sulfur-based chemicals, which the atmosphere is filled with, to produce energy. Scientists began to detect phosphine readings by coincidence while conducting work with a James Clark Madison telescope. After initially detecting the irregularity, it continued to appear on subsequent findings.

“They weren’t expecting anything about it. But they looked and got the data back. They weren’t looking at images, but they were looking at spectra. And they saw this dip, right where phosphine would be. And they were amazed. They then used this to use an Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, and they were able to find that phosphine dip again in the sub-millimeter,” Garner says.

Using the ALMA telescope in Chile, researchers captured unfiltered light from Venus. Like a glass prism separating colors from a rainbow, ALMA captures the light and creates a map of the various spectra of frequencies. Scientists can then interpret this map, matching frequencies to chemical signatures. A dip in one area corresponded to phosphine, a molecule produced by biological and industrial mechanisms.

Phosphine, a simple molecule composed of phosphorus and carbon, has been found in other planets within the solar system. For example, Jupiter and Saturn have been known to contain phosphine. What differentiates Venus from the other planets is that Jupiter and Saturn produce their phosphine abiotically. Phosphorus within the atmosphere, under different ranges of heat and pressure in these gas giants, reacts with carbon to form their detectable phosphine. 

However, Garner explained, “The thermodynamics and kinetics are not right on Venus,” as the atmospheric conditions are vastly different. No known pathway exists within Venus’s temperature and pressure to create phosphine. Many believe that phosphine on Venus cannot be produced without biological life to serve as an intermediate.

With the recent publication in “Nature,” news articles have popularized the study, claiming that Venus is confirmed to have life. However, the original researchers, as well as Garner, urge that more research must be conducted before such conclusions can be drawn. Dr. Ralph Harvey of CWRU’s Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Science department remains skeptical of biological life, as the harsh living conditions make the possibility of life close to zero. Instead, he believes that phosphine was formed through an unknown chemical reaction in the atmosphere.

“You’ve got sulfuric acid clouds 60 miles above the surface, and you get down to the surface, it’s so far past the boiling point. It’s really hard to imagine life existing in any of these settings,” Harvey says. “In terms of the amount of materials, Venus’s atmosphere contains 60 or 70 times more material than ours.” 

The dips in the original spectra may be due to other chemicals that have similar signatures. In addition, through telescopes on Earth, the atmosphere of Venus may be well-understood, but the surface has barely been touched. Sulfuric rain, and the scorching-hot temperatures corrode landers and other technology sent to the surface within extremely short spans of time, making studies difficult. However, the last rover was sent in 1984; technology has developed exponentially in the past 36 years, and these preliminary findings may spark further investigation.

Harvey emphasizes that more research must be conducted on Venus. His research group has used NASA’s Glenn Extreme Environment Rig (GEER) in Cleveland, a chamber that can mimic the pressures and temperatures on Venus to model the minerals on its surface. With more interest in Venus, Harvey speculates that NASA will allocate more funding towards the planet. While rovers can only survive an hour, tops, on the sulfurous, corrosive atmosphere of Venus, better technology to improve power supplies and durability will allow for better sampling, shaping the future of exploration on Venus. 

In Cleveland, funding for GEER will likely increase. Harvey said, “If the interest in Venus is growing, the capabilities at NASA Glenn are going to be huge.” 

These fresh astronomical discoveries will likely inspire a new wave of scientific exploration. Still, as recent economic recessions reduce government funding to education, healthcare and the environment, some question why NASA receives funding. On this, Garner points to 1968, when astronauts photographed the Earth, rising over the surface of the moon. Garner said, “It was seen as nature was intended to be viewed. In 1968, that image was released. In 1969, the Clean Air Act happened. Earth day was formed in 1971. Leaded gas was banned. The Endangered Species Act. The Clean Water Act. All of that is a consequence of one photograph of the Earth in a different perspective.” 

Expanding our knowledge of space is necessary because, through these findings, civilization frames its humanity in new ways. Exploration thousands of miles away has the potential to spark change across our own planet.

So, with the evidence that life may exist on Venus, how will that change the way that the U.S. views life? Will the world see a new wave of environmental reform? Or, perhaps, this discovery will cause further development in technology?

Only time will tell.