The news about a group of scientists detecting a molecule in the upper cloud layers of the planet Venus changed the world’s perspective about whether the search for extraterrestrial life had been finally found.
As one would expect, this kind of announcement did shook the world as the researchers stated to have found phosphine in the clouds of Venus but then there were skeptics who thinks this lacks any solid evidence to back it up but even there had been much more details about the event coming to light.
In this scenario, scientists were divided on the publication with a group questioning the detection itself and being skeptic about whether the team that made the findings actually found what they claimed to have seen while the other team scrutinizes the interpretation and whether or not calling the findings “Life” is a good conclusion to arrive at.
For one thing, Venus is inhabitable and although the planet had been said to have at once being like earth but then things went hellish on the planet rendering it inhospitable to host life – at least on its surface but there was the idea that there could be a possibility of life in the balmy atmosphere which had been around for quite a pretty long time.
“Obviously if it’s correct, it’s an extremely cool result and potentially has profound implications,” John Carpenter, an observatory scientist at the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, told Live Science. “But grand claims demand grand evidence.”
But what did the researchers found that caused the uproar and made so much headlines? It was a molecule phosphine (PH3) which is made from phosphorus atom that bonded to three hydrogen atoms.
Phosphine in this case is a delicate and poisonous gas for most creatures such as humans and other species but its produced by bacteria that lives in rotting sewage and swamps which lacks oxygen and even in the intestines of some animals.
The astronomers in question utilized the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and ALMA to look at the neighboring planet’s light which is meant to help indicate the presence of different chemicals and then notices the one with Phosphine.
With this findings, it was somewhat contradictory due to the fact that the Venus’ atmosphere is filled with carbon dioxide and other oxygen-containing molecules which might not give room for the Phosphine molecule to survive for too long but the fact that it could be spotted is quite intriguing.
Much like what scientists said, the fact about whether the research team did really see Phosphine is questionable. And one scientist thinks that the observations contained some level of noise which could in turn mimic the phosphine signal.
Michael Way, a physical scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, agreed.
“More lines are needed to verify that it is this particular molecule,” Way told Live Science in an email. “As this point it’s not 100% clear exactly what they have measured.”
Way further said that there is a signature that is associated with Sulfur Dioxide, SO2 right at the same frequency of light. This is the third most abundant gas in the Venus’ atmosphere whereby its presence could account for the phosphine finding.
But the original team of scientists who made the discovery are hoping to go back and verify their findings with independent investigators with NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope, the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo spacecraft, which will soon fly past Venus on its way to Mercury, are all planning their own phosphine searches.
But the existence of phosphine in Venus might not be so evident as to being produced by a living organism. This molecule is made of four atoms large and it’s “easy to be made in the laboratory” according to Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow in the UK told Live Science that “You just combine phosphorus and a base. I’ve made it by mistake.”
The team that made the initial discovery thinks that there is a chance that a non-living organism making the phosphine on Venus and then released an 100-page paper on arxiv September 14th describing their attempts, and coming up short in every case. (That paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.) But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something they missed.
Cronin furthered by stating that Venus surface which is thought of being geologically active rather than some dead planets might open in some occasion and then release the underground reserves of phosphorus. This also go with the fact that if the Venus’ sulfuric acid (H2SO4) cloud has a rain, this might create a reaction that will cause Phosphine and could be why it’s seen in the planet’s atmosphere.
“You set up a false narrative,” Cronin said. “Phosphine is present on Venus, and phosphine has been seen in Earth biology; therefore there’s life on Venus.”
Moreover, the idea of Earth-like organisms, even microbial ones, living in Venus’ hellish, toxic atmosphere is a tough one for many scientists. “The cloud droplets are concentrated sulfuric acid,” Catling said. “Chemists know that if you add biomolecules to concentrated sulfuric acid, you’ll get a vigorous reaction where the biomolecules end up looking like charcoal and deader than a doornail.”
Although the presence of some amount of water can be detected in the clouds of Venus but it’s dryness makes it really hard or impossible for even microbes to exist on it according to Catling.
Figuring out just what is going on in this case is likely to take a while. “Expect a lot of interesting papers, many wrong and many correct, in the coming months,” Way said.
Meanwhile the planet itself might get much more visiting and probing in the near future due to this finding and if the assumption of life existing in the clouds of Venus is possible, then there might be a shift in the perspective. Cronin said that the presence of Phosphine could be a “bio hint” about the existence of life on the planet.
“I think what these guys are doing is super interesting,” he added. “I just think they should have moderated it even more judiciously.”