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Science

Phosphane gas and potential life on the planet Venus

London (UK) / The discovery of phosphane gas in the atmosphere of Venus indicates that this planet has the “potential” to harbor or have harbored life, according to a study published Monday in “Nature Astronomy.”

According to the Cardiff University team in charge of the investigation, the discovery “suggests that Venus could host photochemical or geochemical processes”, although it does not necessarily imply “robust evidence of microbial life” on the planet.

The observations of the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii (USA) and the Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Telescope (ALMA), in the Atacama desert (Chile), in 2017 and 2019 have allowed scientists this finding, which opens a path in the possibility of finding life outside planet Earth.

“What we think we have found is phosphane gas in the atmosphere of Venus. On a rocky planet like Earth, phosphane is a rare gas and it arises mainly as a result of life, so it is what we call a biomarker, ”explained Emily Drabek-Maunder, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to the press. part of the team that developed the work

The scientists pointed out that phosphane (PH3) on Earth is caused by human activity, such as industry, or by microorganisms, which may be an indication of some form of life on Venus.

The surface of Venus

Conditions on the surface of Venus are “hostile to life,” according to the study, but the environment in its highest clouds, between 53 and 62 kilometers in altitude, is temperate.

“However, the composition of these clouds is very acidic, and under these conditions the phosphane would be destroyed very quickly,” said the research team.

The mission led by Professor Jane Greaves analyzed the eventual origin of phosphane in the atmosphere of Venus, analyzing possible sources on the planet’s surface, micrometeorites, lightning or chemical processes that take place in clouds, although they were unable to determine it.

“More observations and models are needed to explore the origin of phosphane in the atmosphere of Venus,” they admitted.

The authors pointed out in their text that “PH3 (phosphane) could originate from unknown photochemical or geochemical processes or, by analogy with the biological production of PH3 on Earth, from the presence of life.”

“If no chemical process can explain PH3 in the upper atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process previously considered implausible under Venusian conditions,” they added.

“There is something that is really unknown”

In presenting the finding to the press, Professor William Bains explained that “we are being very cautious, we are not saying there is life (on Venus). What we are saying is that there is something that is really unknown and that could be life ”.

Phosphane, a gas denser than terrestrial air, can be found in human-generated products such as insecticides, and its exposure to humans can be highly toxic.

The scientific community has welcomed the announcement between euphoria and skepticism, which, despite everything, faces “substantial conceptual problems regarding the idea of ​​life on Venus”, as the study authors themselves acknowledge.

“Throughout my entire career I have been interested in searching for life in the universe, so I am excited that this is even possible. But we encourage others to tell us where we may have gone wrong. Our study and the data are open access: that’s how science works, ”Greaves summed up in a statement to the BBC. (September 15, 2020, EFE / PracticaEspañol)

(Automatic translation)

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