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Phosphine found in the clouds of Venus. A sign of microbial life?

Arthur C. Clarke said,“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But what if there is something breathing next door? Isn’t it more terrifying or is it more exciting? We have been finding and studying exoplanets for more than two decades and now, we suspect evidence of alien life on the Earth’s twin- Venus.

Credit: Venus | NASA/JPL-Caltech

A team of Scientists first spotted the traces of Phosphine (PH3), a toxic gas made from a combination of a Phosphorous and three hydrogen atoms, in June 2017 using James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. Was it a mistake in the data or had they discovered something extraordinary? There have been a lot of debates over this because here, on Earth, Phosphine is made naturally by some anaerobic bacterias (microorganisms that live in an oxygen deprived environment) although it is also manufactured chemically. But as the scientists know today, the conditions in the Venusian clouds are not really favourable for chemically producing the Phosphine.

Following the initial findings, the team further researched using the 45-telescope array ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) in Chile which led to a confirmation of their observations in 2019. They discovered faint traces, around 20 parts per billion, of this gas in the upper clouds of the Venusian atmosphere. “There is a chance we have detected some kind of living organism in the clouds of Venus. This is very exciting and was really very unexpected,” Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University who led the International team, said during the conference held to announce this discovery and the research got published in the Nature Astronomy Journal on September 14, 2020.

However, on our home planet, the Earth, the concentration of Phosphine is in the range of parts per trillion. Not just on the rocky planets but Phosphine has been found in the atmospheres of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. But for the Jovian planets, it is believed that the gas forms in the inner atmosphere under high temperature and pressure and so the formation has purely chemical and no biological origins. But since the chemical conditions in the Venusian atmosphere cannot harbor the formation of Phosphine, the origins are believed to be biological and might be a signature of some alien microbial life.

Venus is a beautiful hellish world, a lot about which still remains undiscovered. Two possibilities exist: either some alien microbes are making Phosphine out of Phosphorus and Hydrogen atoms or there is some chemistry going on in the Venusian clouds which is still alien to us. Both are equally intriguing. However, there is always a third possibility. So, let us know what your ‘third possibility’ is in the comments below.

References

[1] Zastrow, Mark. “Astronomers spy phosphine on Venus, a potential sign of life”, Venus/Alien Life, astronomy.com, 17th Sept. 2020,

https://astronomy.com/news/2020/09/astronomers-spy-phosphine-on-venus-a-potential-sign-of-life

[2] Mckemmish, Laura Et al. “Finding Phosphine on Venus – and the Prospect of Alien Life”, The Sciences, thewire.in, 18th Sept. 2020,

Author

Manreet

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