the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Kellen Seeley '22
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This September, an international team of astronomers discovered phosphine gas in Venus’ atmosphere approximately 55 kilometers above its surface. The team detected phosphine gas by using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile. Investigations are now underway to determine if the phosphine is of biological origin.
Phosphine is a compound that consists of hydrogen and phosphorus produced by some organisms on Earth. Astrobiologists have marked phosphine as a possible indicator of life on other planets. Under normal circumstances, Venus’ highly acidic atmosphere would have destroyed the phosphine gas; however, scientists have detected it. Scientists are now in search of the mechanism that is replenishing the gas. They have identified the source as either biological production or an undiscovered chemical process not yet understood.
Away from the extreme temperatures and crushing pressures of the planet’s surface, the region of the atmosphere where phosphine was located could be inhabited by airborne microbes. Astronomers are now in the process of confirming the presence of the gas above Venus using other telescopes on Earth. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are recommending using an instrument in Hawaii located at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. They also suggest using a telescope carried on a plane by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to further the investigation.
Planetary scientists at MIT originally wanted to observe Venus in July 2020, but the study got delayed due to COVID-19. They now hope to be able to resume their investigation soon. Until then, the presence of life on Venus remains a question and a possibility.