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The Chemistry of Venus

Another celestial nomination for life in Space.

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A multinational research team announced the presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of our neighbour planet Venus. The research paper, published on Monday, 14h September 2020  in the journal “Nature Astronomy” mentions the apparent presence of phosphine (PH3) Gas into the cloud decks of Venus.

“Here, we report the apparent presence of phosphine (PH3) gas in Venus’s atmosphere”, stated the paper.

Spectral detections from JCMT(James Clerk Maxwell Telescope) and ALMA(Atacama large millimetre/submillimetre Array)  telescopes infer the presence of phosphine at approximately 20ppb(parts per billion concentrations).

The finding has lead to an eruption of questions and discussions regarding phosphine production into a highly acidic and superheated atmosphere as that of Venus.

Nineteen ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor plateau | ESO Norge
Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. ALMA is one of the largest telescopes in the world, consisting of 66 antennas. [credits: space.com]
科学家可能发现首个外星生命存在证据,地球也许并不孤独| 爱范儿
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), situated close to the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii, [image credits; East India observatory]
On Earth, naturally, this gas originates from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry or biologically through activities that define microbial presence. There is no abiotic production route in Venus’ atmosphere. There are no chances of abiotic production (such as in a lab) on Venus.

Hence, the big question arises: Do we have organic (biotic) forms of life on Venus?

First things first, What is Phosphine?

We are familiar with Phosphine as a compound of Phosphorus bonded with three hydrogen atoms. It finds a number of uses in industries such as textile, widely used on farms to control insect, rodent and rabbit infestation in many different stored grains. Phosphine is used in the semiconductor industry to introduce phosphorus into silicon crystal (inside our smartphones, LED devices and other devices).

What do the Scientists Say?

“The way we understand phosphine nowadays is a sign of biological degradation (breakdown) of biomass or decay of biological matter”, Tetyana Milojevic, a biochemist from the University of Vienna told  space.com.

“We don’t have firm evidence of that, instead, it may simply be a product of microbial matter decaying chemically”, she added.

NASA announced this research and added that Venus is proving to be an exciting place of discovery. Two out of its next four missions for the Space Discovery Program are focused on Venus.

Varun Bhalerao of IIT Bombay said it was too early to consider this as evidence for extra-terrestrial life.

There are still gaps in understanding phosphine and these gaps must be filled to explain its occurrence, in order to drift closer to what it might mean on Venus. Our solar system, thus, has a growing number of nominations for extra-terrestrial life.

  • NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover is on its way to MARS to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet.
  • Scientists have also confirmed water vapour on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
  • Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus also fall into this list.

Now, with phosphine on Venus, the hottest planet and the brightest star to the Earth Sky joins the group, a potential target.

 

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