Phosphine found in the Venus atmosphere, could be signs of 'aerial life' in planet's clouds

A chemically-synthesized bioweapon and agricultural fumigant, phosphine in also naturally made by some anaerobic microbes in low oxygen environments.

The Royal Astronomical Society announced yesterday that a team of astronomers has discovered an unlikely molecule in sizeable amounts in the atmospheric clouds of Venus. From what is known about phosphine on Earth, the molecule can be synthesized industrially, or by bacteria that can grow in environments where oxygen is low or non-existent.

For decades, researchers have suspected that Venus could sustain microbial life in its atmosphere – in high clouds instead of the planet's scorching surface, where temperatures can go up to 450 degrees Celsius (700 deg K). Even so, these microbes were thought to be resistant and hardy – particularly tolerant of the high sulphuric acid content in Venus' environment.

The detection of phosphine molecules, which are in turn made up of hydrogen and phosphorus molecules, may point to this extra-terrestrial ‘aerial’ life, researchers have said.

However, the discovery does not necessitate the presence of life on Venus as telescopic information or data configuration could have affected the results. So double and triple checking of the facts is necessary. As David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute said, “When somebody comes up with an extraordinary observation that hasn’t been made before, you wonder if they could have done something wrong.”

The study was published on 14 September in the journal Nature Astronomy. Clara Sousa-Silva, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who is also a study co-author, said “I immediately freaked out, of course. I presumed it was a mistake, but I very much wanted it to not be a mistake.”

She was also the one who initially identified phosphine as a potential biosignature. This study was conducted after scientists found in January that the chemical can be used as a potential biosignature gas in anoxic exoplanets. Many researchers of the same team, including Clara Sousa-Silva, participated in the recent study to study atmospheres of other planets to detect the presence of the gas.

Venus. Image Credit: PLANET-C/JAXA

Venus. Image Credit: PLANET-C/JAXA

Phosphine is considered a dangerous gas as it has been used as a bioweapon in the past (World War I). Other than that it is used as an agricultural fumigant. But it is naturally manufactured by some anaerobic microbes as well, who do not have access to oxygen. Otherwise, the gas is extremely hard to make and the clouds on Venus should be destroying the molecule before it can accumulate to a size that has been detected.

So if the gas is indeed present, there could be two possibilities – one that there are some alien life-forms on Earth’s twin planet responsible for the chemical, or there is a way to develop the gas without life.

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