The last several weeks have been exciting for Venus, thanks to the announcement of the discovery of phosphine – a molecule whose presence in the atmosphere of the planet is puzzling. The origin of this molecule couldn’t be worked out in the lab and the researchers were left with many uncertainties.
A different team has now shown that there is more to be excited about. The researchers report the discovery of the amino acid glycine, a crucial building block of proteins, in a new study yet to be peer-reviewed on the online repository arXiv.
This is certainly not proof there’s life on Venus, as glycine has been found in comets such as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. However, this would be the first detection of the amino acid in the atmosphere of a planet.
The distribution of glycine in the atmosphere follows a similar pattern to the phosphine, being most common near mid-latitudes and absent at the poles, but the glycine is found at higher altitudes than the phosphine.
A lot more observations will be necessary to truly understand the complex Venusian atmosphere, both from Earth and close-up. While no new mission to Venus has been announced, luck would have it that a different mission flew by the planet this week.
The European Space Agency’s BepiColombo, whose goal is to study Mercury, is using Venus to get closer to the innermost planet. During this flyby, it got as close as 10,720 kilometers (6,661 miles) from the planet’s surface.
“The flyby itself was very successful,” Elsa Montagnon, ESA’s BepiColombo Spacecraft operations manager, said in a statement. “The only difference to normal cruise phase operations is that near to Venus we have to temporarily close the shutter of any of the star trackers that are expected to be blinded by the planet, similar to closing your eyes to avoid looking at the Sun.”
The team used this time to do some instrument checks on the spacecraft, including an attempt at detecting phosphine. However, it's unclear if the molecule was detected because the intstruments were not designed for this search.
Given the announcement was just last month. the team did not have time to plan and adjust the spacecraft trajectory to have the best chance to look for it. They hope to do that for the next Venus flyby that is scheduled for next August 10. On that occasion, BepiColombo will also be much closer at just 550 kilometers (342 miles) from the surface. By then, maybe astronomers will have to look for phosphine, glycine, and other exciting molecules.