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Phosphine in Venus's Atmosphere is a Possible Sign of Life


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#1 LFC

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 10:48 AM

The detection of phosphine gas, which apparently has no known abiotic sources, may be evidence of microbes on Venus.

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Venus’ clouds appear to contain a smelly, toxic gas that could be produced by bacteria, a new study suggests.

Chemical signs of the gas phosphine have been spotted in observations of the Venusian atmosphere, researchers report September 14 in Nature Astronomy. Examining the atmosphere in millimeter wavelengths of light showed that the planet’s clouds appear to contain up to 20 parts per billion of phosphine — enough that something must be actively producing it, the researchers say.

If the discovery holds up, and if no other explanations for the gas are found, then the hellish planet next door could be the first to yield signs of extraterrestrial life — though those are very big ifs.

“We’re not saying it’s life,” says astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales. “We’re saying it’s a possible sign of life.”

Venus has roughly the same mass and size as Earth, so, from far away, the neighboring planet might look like a habitable world (SN: 10/4/19). But up close, Venus is a scorching hellscape with sulfuric acid rain and crushing atmospheric pressures.

Still, Venus might have been more hospitable in the recent past (SN: 8/26/16). And the current harsh conditions haven’t stopped astrobiologists from speculating about niches on Venus where present-day life could hang on, such as the temperate cloud decks.

“Fifty kilometers above the surface of Venus, the conditions are what you would find if you walk out of your door right now,” at least in terms of atmospheric pressure and temperature, says planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the new study. The chemistry is alien, but “that’s a hospitable environment for life.”

Previous work led by astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva at MIT suggested that phosphine could be a promising biosignature, a chemical signature of life that can be detected in the atmospheres of other planets using Earth-based or space telescopes.

On Earth, phosphine is associated with microbes or industrial activity — although that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. “It’s a horrific molecule. It’s terrifying,” Sousa-Silva says. For most Earthly life, phosphine is poisonous because “it interferes with oxygen metabolism in a variety of macabre ways.” For anaerobic life, which does not use oxygen, “phosphine is not so evil,” Sousa-Silva says. Anaerobic microbes living in such places as sewage, swamps and the intestinal tracts of animals from penguins to people are the only known life-forms on Earth that produce the molecule.

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#2 golden_valley

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 11:00 AM

 LFC, on 14 September 2020 - 10:48 AM, said:

The detection of phosphine gas, which apparently has no known abiotic sources, may be evidence of microbes on Venus.

Well that rules Venus out as a possible place to escape to.

#3 Beelzebuddy

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 12:41 PM

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#4 HockeyDon

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 01:22 PM

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Still, Venus might have been more hospitable in the recent past (SN: 8/26/16).

Wow! 2016 is the very recent past. I wonder why I didn't hear about this.
Well, fuck.

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#5 Rue Bella

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 01:29 PM

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Venus’ clouds appear to contain a smelly, toxic gas ....

Perhaps the goddess herself passed some ethereal gas.
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#6 AnBr

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 03:51 PM

 HockeyDon, on 14 September 2020 - 01:22 PM, said:

Wow! 2016 is the very recent past. I wonder why I didn't hear about this.

You just weren't listening to the right sources.
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#7 baw1064

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Posted 14 September 2020 - 06:50 PM

if you pour water on white phosphorus, you do make phosphine. So there is an abiotic source.

Now admittedly we don't know of any white phosphorus or water on Venus.
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