Phosphine in the Atmosphere: Scientists Have Found Possible Signs of Alien Life on Venus

Scientists have found anomalous amounts of Phosphine on Venus. The observed quantity of Phosphine on Venus could not be produced by any natural processes, hinting at the existence of alien life within the Venusian atmosphere. “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive."

Scientists have recently revealed a fascinating discovery on Venus. They have found a specific gas on Venus–Phosphine–that could hint at the existence of possible alien life in the Venusian atmosphere.

On Earth, Phosphine is related by microbes in oxygen-starved environments. Discovering it in the atmosphere of Venus in larger quantities than expected could point towards Venus being home to alien life.

But does the discovery really mean we’ve found aliens?

I would love that to be true, but the discovery is far from conclusive evidence of alien life, even though the numbers would suggest it.

As revealed by the researchers, high concentrations of Phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere may be the result of aerial organisms living inside the atmosphere of the planet. The gas was detected at a distance of around 50 kilometers, where conditions for life could be stable.

The discovery of Phosphine took scientists by surprise, even though astronomers have speculated for decades that high-elevation clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes, which float free from the scorching surface but still need to tolerate very high acidity.

Detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorous, could point to this extraterrestrial “airborne” life. This, I repeat, is a possibility, and still not a fact. The existence of Phosphine could also be explained by certain natural processes, but not anywhere near in the amount that was discovered on Venus.

Astronomers made use of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to detect the gas and were then given time to follow up their discovery with the group of 45 telescopes from the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimeter, much higher than the human eye can see; only telescopes at high altitudes can detect this wavelength effectively. These observations allowed scientists to double and triple-check their initial observation, confirming the existence of the gas.

Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University explained: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of Phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

After the discovery of Phosphine was confirmed, scientists needed to better understand how much of the gas was present in the atmosphere. That’s where Professor Hideo Sagawa of Kyoto Sangyo University came into play. His models for the Venusian data were used to interpret the discovery. The researchers found that although Phosphine was present, it is only in about twenty molecules in every billion, which is relatively scarce.

Scientists then needed to look at the possibility that Phosphine was not the result of alien life, but natural processes. Brainstorming revealed that Phosphine could be formed by sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but nowhere near in the amount it was discovered by the telescopes.

According to the researchers, natural sources could produce no more than one the thousandth of the amount of Phosphine that the telescopes saw, which is why the discovery is so exciting, and why astronomers say it likely points at the existence of free-floating microorganisms in the Venusian atmosphere.

The logical next step is to look at Earth. According to calculations by Dr. Paul Rimmer of Cambridge University, in order to produce the observed amount of Phosphine on Venus, organisms from Earth would need to work at no more than 10 percent of their maximum potency.

Previous observations of Venus have revealed that dark streaks where ultraviolet light is absorbed could actually come from colonies of living organisms free-floating inside the Venusian atmosphere.

The discovery on Venus is exciting and raises hopes of finding life elsewhere in the solar system. In addition to Venus, astronomers say that Mars and its methane spikes could also mean there’s microbial life on the red planet.

The new discovery describing the likely signs of alien life on Venus has been reported in a paper published in Nature Astronomy.


Reference: 

Royal Astronomical Society / Nature Astronomy

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