Phosphine on Venus an Indicator of Life: Scientists After Heated Debate

·2 min read

In September 2020, an international team of scientists reported the discovery of phosphine in the clouds of Venus using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Observatory. Phosphine is a colourless and flammable gas that naturally exists only in living processes on earth. The discovery meant that either the scientists did not know an unknown non-living origin of the chemical or it could be a hint that Venus has microbes that could produce phosphine. Since Venus is full of volcanic activity and flowing lava raising its surface temperature to 464 degrees celsius, the research drew criticism and other scientists suggested that there might be an error in the data collected by the observatory. In July 2021, an independent study falsified their findings of phosphine on Venus. That very day, the authors of the original study clarified in an addendum to their research that they themselves had tested their procedure and data and it was very clear that the data showed the existence of phosphine.

Now, in a new study, the authors of the original study have addressed another claim questioning their findings and after performing analyses based on the counterclaim that results could have been heavily contaminated by Sulphur Dioxide. Scientists say in the new study that the contamination by Sulphur Dioxide was low enough and the detection of phosphine was not an error. To the questions of the error in data, scientists used another simultaneous observation of Venus from a different observatory – James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT).

“We are convinced the phosphine finding is real. But we do not know what is making it,” Dave Clements, one of the authors of the study told Daily Star. The study was submitted on August 18 and is yet to be published in Earth and Planetary Astrophysics.

According to Clements, to understand more about how phosphine is naturally produced on earth, scientists plan to study the lifestyle of Gentoo penguins, which are common to the Falkland Islands, an archipelago 480 kilometres northeast of South America’s southern tip.

Phosphine on earth can be produced by some anaerobic bacteria as well. In non-living processes, phosphine is not produced because of the earth’s oxygenated environment. Rather than existing in a reduced form (phosphine), phosphorus on earth exists in its most oxidised form (phosphate). While the origin of phosphine is still debated, the only living processes -bacteria, penguins – are yet known to produce phosphine.

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