The possibility of life in our own solar system has always been associated with Mars. However, last month another planet may have joined the club. The detection of Phosphine in atmospheric clouds of Venus has raised some questions about how it got there.
What is Phosphine?
Phosphine is a toxic, extremely flammable, and terrible smelling compound made mostly of phosphorus. It has a range of uses on Earth. According to Derek Lower, a chemist with an interest in astronomy, phosphine is used in the electronics industry to make semiconductors and to fumigate rodents as a pesticide, among other things. As Earth’s atmosphere is largely made up of oxygen, most of the phosphorus on our planet is in the form of phosphate. The same should go for Venus, as its atmosphere is mostly made up of carbon dioxide (which contains oxygen), however this is not the case.
Phosphine on Venus?
A probe that reached Venus in 1978 has detected a signature of phosphine in the clouds of the planet. It has been found on other rocky planets, including Mars, but Venus has never come to mind as a planet that could support life, as the conditions on Venus are extremely harsh. While Venus is often considered “Earth’s sister” due to the similarities in our size and structure, the similarities end there. Being very close to the sun, Venus has the hottest atmospheric temperature in our solar system, heating up to 880 degrees Fahrenheit-hot enough to create puddles of lead. However, about 30 miles up from the surface, where the clouds reside, the conditions are very similar to that of Earth. Ms. Cox, a chemistry teacher at Oakton High School states, “We have been aware of the presence of this gas on planets such as Jupiter for some time, but Venus lacks the same conditions as this gas giant to be able to generate phosphine, so some other explanation of its presence is required.” Phosphine can also be associated with the decomposition of organic matter. As Ms. Cox worded it, “One explanation could be due to a bacteria or other organism, producing this gas as a bi-product from the decay process.” Due to this, finding phosphine in the atmosphere could potentially correspond to previous, or even current forms of life in the atmosphere of the planet.
What does this mean?
This whole theory has sparked some debate among industry professionals in the last month because this idea is just that, a theory. Clara Sousa-Silva, research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) says “Now, astronomers will think of all the ways to justify phosphine without life, and I welcome that. Please do, because we are at the end of our possibilities to show abiotic processes that can make phosphine.” EAPS Research Scientist Janusz Petkowski adds, “This means either this is life, or it’s some sort of physical or chemical process that we do not expect to happen on rocky planets”, which is also a possibility. After all, there is still relatively little that we know about our solar system to date.