Elusive Phosphine | Science and life


The announcement of the discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus last fall caused a lot of noise not only in scientific circles. Still, when more than a decade of searching for traces of life on Mars has not led to any significant results, the news of the possible existence of life on Venus sounded extremely encouraging. In the work published in the journal Astrobiology, the authors hypothesized that the small amount of phosphine that they were able to spectroscopically record in the Venusian “air” could be the product of the vital activity of specific microorganisms, whose entire life cycle takes place at an altitude of several tens of kilometers.

While artists refreshed Carl Sagan’s ideas about living things in the dense atmospheres of the gas giant planets and enthusiastically drew hypothetical Venusian flying microbes, scientists began to scrutinize the findings and evidence of their brave astrobiological colleagues. And in the end they questioned the very results of the initial observations, suggesting that those researchers had confused the spectroscopic signal of phosphine with the signals of sulfur dioxide, a molecule much more common on Venus. The situation is not to say that it is very rare in science, to recall at least the numerous “finds” and “losses” of elementary particles in colliders.

Now the unfortunate phosphine article has come under the hand of “astrogeologists” at Cornell University. As the authors write in PNAS, it is too early to write off Venusian volcanism, and if there is phosphine on this planet, then large active volcanoes may well be its source. According to their calculations, in the magma of Venus, part of the phosphorus can be in the form of various phosphides, for example, metal phosphides. When a major eruption occurs, such as the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, ash and volcanic debris can be thrown up to 50 kilometers or more. In the atmosphere of Venus, at this height, there is just a layer with sulfuric acid clouds, and when sulfuric acid interacts with phosphides, the same phosphine is formed.

The amount of phosphorus in magma, the rate of decomposition of phosphine in the atmosphere, the observed periodic fluctuations in the concentration of sulfur dioxide, probably associated with large eruptions – all this, at least, does not contradict the hypothesis of volcanic phosphine on Venus. And it remains to be hoped that future research will help to find out what is the origin of this elusive gas: biological, geological or some other, and whether it is there at all.


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