Potential detection of phosphine on Venus

There’s quite an amount of rumours circulating on “the internet” (and who am I not to believe “the internet”…) today that in the course of the day, astronomers at MIT will announce that phosphine has been detected in clouds in higher altitudes of the atmosphere of Venus, and that this could be an indicator of microbial life as no other chemical process would readily explain the presence of this gas. See, for instance, this story

Now this isn’t official, and it could all turn out to be either utter garbage or at least much less sensationalist than it is currently being presented as, but it does seem to be a bit more than the usual “UFO footage that the government doesn’t want you to see!” conspiracy website story. So I guess it’s not too early to start a thread dedicated to this.

And here is the link to the Youtube webcast of a video conference where, according to these rumours, this will be announced at 11:00 EDT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IIj3e5BFp0

A good write-up from The Bad Astronomer (Phil Plait); appropriately cautious, but it’s certainly an interesting bit of scientific discovery.

I would love to see some kind of space probe deploying a high-altitude balloon in the Venusian clouds.

From a NPR article today:

The researchers have racked their brains trying to understand why this toxic gas, phosphine, is there in such quantities, but they can’t think of any geologic or chemical explanation.

The mystery raises the astonishing possibility that Venus, the planet that comes closest to Earth as it whizzes around the sun, might have some kind of life flourishing more than 30 miles up in its yellow, hazy clouds.

Very cool stuff. I hope it’s real and I hope they can get to the bottom of it soon.

Since this is MPSIMS, I don’t mind sharing this. The news was announced on the 1PM CBC News. Then they signed off. The usual signoff is “And that’s the news of the world.” But today they added “and beyond.”

Phosphine is the phosphorous analog of ammonia, PH3.

It’s certainly interesting, but caution is in order. The argument is that we know of no natural process that makes phosphines in the quantity discovered in the clouds. On Earth, atmospheric phosphine is, I believe, 100% due to decomposition of living things.

But Venus is very different than Earth. It’s extremely hot, surface pressure is 90X that of Earth, there is sulfuric acid and other chemicals in the atmosphere, and it gets a lot more energy from the sun.

I suspect the next year or two will see scientists all over the place trying to recreate conditions that lead to the natural creation of phosphine without life.

This probably also means a Venus mission will be on the drawing boards very soon. I’d love to see a probe that brakes to subsonic speeds in the high atmosphere of Venus then deploys a series of floating instrument packages which, if deployed at different altitudes could eventually drift all over the planet sniffing the air.

Compared to a Europa lander, a mission like that would be easy.

I’m inclined to agree. It’s certainly exciting to think “maybe there’s life on Venus”, but that’s quite a leap right now since all we really have are spectral lines that are consistent with phosphine. The fact that bacterial life is a possible explanation is interesting, but not the only explanation nor is it the by any means the most likely. Abiotic production of phosphine is possible and indeed it’s been observed on Jupiter. We don’t know of any processes on Venus that would produce it, but there’s a lot we don’t know about the highly energetic processes that exist there.

I still think a Europa lander – or even just an orbiter initially – would be far more interesting in terms of the potential for awesome discoveries.

A Europa lander would be awesome, but the technical challenges and risks are pretty daunting. And of course the trip would take years, so we are looking at maybe a decade or more before we learn anything.

A Venus mission that only needs to aerobrake in the high atmosphere is feasible, should be comparatively easy to build, and probably rather quickly. Also, the floating probe(s) could be powered by solar energy using relatively small and cheap panels.

There’s another line of evidence for life on Venus. The clouds have a peculiar UV absorption consistent with 1-15 micron particles, and there has been speculation for years that there may be large ‘clouds’ of Bacteria floating around in the upper atmosphere.

That’s from 2018. So there are two independent lines of research that seem to point to the possibility of backgerial life.

Still, it’s never aliens, until every other possible explanation has been ruled out.

IIRC phosphine gas is a by-product of meth production. Maybe Jesse Pinkman really wanted to disappear.

Two quotes from a coauthor of the study: “With what we currently know of Venus, the most plausible explanation for phosphine, as fantastical as it might sound, is life…I should emphasize that life, as an explanation for our discovery, should be, as always, the last resort.”

Hmmm, that seems like she’s trying to have it both ways. Is it the most plausible, or is it the last resort?

Given where the stuff is found in the atmosphere, maybe we should be working to get to the top of it instead. :wink:

I read it as saying that life is the best explanation we have right now, just by default, as others have been ruled out. But “what we currently know of Venus” is certainly incomplete, and so another, mundane, process that right now is unknown to us, is still a more likely candidate than life.

I know in my heart to always think “it’s never aliens,” but, geez, this would be amazing. While searching for articles on this subject yesterday and today, I saw some articles from about a year ago saying that there was the possibility of bacteria in the atmosphere of Venus because there was some sort of anomaly in Venus’ albedo from time to time and they couldn’t explain it. Floating bacterial life was suggested as a possibility, and what if coupled with this new information, it means the case is becoming more solid? Of course, my question, if it IS life, how did it get there? Did it piggy back on a probe? Did it come from Earth or did it evolve on Venus? Again, I know, “don’t get my hopes up…”

We need observations with enough resolution to correlate the UV changes with the sources of the phosphine. If they correlate, that’ll be another piece of evidence.

I agree she’s trying to have it both ways, but it’s understandable. On the one hand, she knows that caution is warranted, on the other hand she doesn’t want to undersell the significance of the discovery. Scientists are only human too, together with a little bit of vanity.

Sorry guys, it must have been that bean I had for dinner.

What are the odds of us having contaminated the atmosphere with some bacteria stuck to one of our probes/landers? Accidentally or intentionally.

Also…this is 2020. If they’re not coming to wage war on us or carry us away to a nearby galaxy as groceries, I really don’t have time for aliens.

For a clear explanation of this see:

What are some ways they could confirm if it’s life or not? It sounds like the main approach so far has been to eliminate natural pathways for phosphine creation. I gather that if they are able to correlate phosphine concentration with the dark bands that absorb UV light, that would also be strong (strong-ish?) evidence.

What other methods are there? Could a probe do analysis that could give a conclusive result?