Science News explains the strange chemistry that’s behind the new discovery, and why it means that Venus can get added to the same list as Mars and the Jovian moon Europa as a possible home for alien critters of some kind:
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.
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.
Still, when [Cardiff University astronomer Jane] Greaves and colleagues searched Venus’ skies for signs of phosphine, the researchers didn’t expect to actually find any. Greaves looked at Venus with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii over five mornings in June 2017, aiming to set a detectability benchmark for future studies seeking the gas in the atmospheres of exoplanets, but was startled to find the hints of phosphine. “That’s a complete surprise,” Greaves says. When she was analyzing the observations, “I thought ‘Oh, I must have done it wrong.’”
So the team checked again with a more powerful telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, in March 2019. But the signature of phosphine — seen as a dip in the spectrum of light at about 1.12 millimeters — was still there. The gas absorbs light in that wavelength. Some other molecules also absorb light near that wavelength, but those either couldn’t explain the whole signal or seemed improbable, Greaves says. “One of those is a plastic,” she says. “I think a floating plastic factory is a less plausible explanation than just saying there’s phosphine.”
Greaves, Sousa-Silva and colleagues considered every explanation they could think of apart from life: atmospheric chemistry; ground and subsurface chemistry; volcanoes outgassing phosphine from the Venusian interior; meteorites peppering the atmosphere with phosphine from the outside; lightning; solar wind; tectonic plates sliding against each other. Some of those processes could produce trace amounts of phosphine, the team found, but orders of magnitude less than the team detected.
“We’re at the end of our rope,” Sousa-Silva says. She hopes other scientists will come up with other explanations. “I’m curious what kind of exotic geochemistry people will come up with to explain this abiotically.”