Breakthrough Initiatives Is Funding More Investigations Into The Origin Of Phosphine On Venus

Cloud structure in the Venusian atmosphere in 2018, revealed by observations in the two ultraviolet bands by Akatsuki. To the human eye, Venus appears featureless and brownish. ISAS/JAXA

The discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus rocked our world on Monday, but the question remains: where is it coming from? Is the phosphine a result of an unknown chemical reaction or is a living organism producing the gas? Perhaps it's something different altogether. Naturally, many around the world want an answer.

To better understand how the phosphine is produced, Breakthrough Initiatives is funding a research effort into the possibility the source is a living organism. This move is unsurprising considering Breakthrough Initiatives' mission to find life beyond Earth for the last 10 years, funding programs such as SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and an Enceladus mission, another place in the solar system where life might exist.

The team is led by Dr Sara Seager, a professor of Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their goal is to investigate whether or not alien life exists on Venus, as well as to produce an analysis of what an exploratory mission to the planet would entail to confirm it.

“We are thrilled to push the envelope to try to understand what kind of life could exist in the very harsh Venus atmosphere and what further evidence for life a mission to Venus could search for,” Professor Seager said in a statement.

Phosphine, which smells like rotten fish, should be destroyed by the thick sulfuric acid clouds on Venus. However, something is preventing this from happening.

On Earth, phosphine is either created by bacteria decaying organic matter or in the lab. All the lab reactions are not spontaneous and require energy to produce the chemical. The original research team, led by Professor Jane Greaves from Cardiff University, looked at possible ways to supply this energy such as volcanos or lightning, but couldn’t find a way to produce enough.

So far, this leaves two possibilities for Venus. It's possible the phosphine is being produced by an unknown chemical reaction from sunlight or within the planet. The other option is a living organism in the clouds. While the latter is an exciting possibility, the clouds of Venus are more acidic than any environment we have on Earth. As of now, we don't know how such life could survive.

“We are trying to do more observations,” Professor Greaves previously told IFLScience. “Obviously the priority is that people can use telescopes safely, during pandemic conditions. But we hope over the next year or so to get a more detailed map of where the phosphine is – what heights, geographic distribution... and if it changes over time.”

Hopefully, follow-up observations by Professor Greaves and her team, the work of the Breakthrough Initiatives project, and others working on this question will bring new insights in the coming months and years.


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