The story of phosphine on Venus wins another exciting chapter. A quartet of scientists in the United States have reanalyzed data from an old American spacecraft devoted to studying the neighboring planet and say they found evidence of molecules that are chemically imbalanced in the mid-altitude clouds in Venus, including the blessed phosphine.
A summary is in order for those who arrived from Mars yesterday. In September 2020, a group led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK reported that they had detected 20 parts per billion phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere using data collected by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and Alma Set in Chile were.
According to the researchers, the identified amount would not be explained by any known process on Venus. And here on earth, phosphine is mainly a product of the metabolism of microorganisms. Greaves and his colleagues never went so far as to spell “Venusian life”, but the implication was clear.
As in science, any announced discovery is subject to scrutiny by the rest of the community. And then the series of embarrassments began. The Cardiff group has been criticized from all sides, from processing the data in a “malleable” manner in order to adapt it to the detection, to confusing the signal of the usual sulfur dioxide with that of phosphine.
To make matters worse, it was discovered that the data was incorrectly processed by Alma (due to the fault of the team that operates the radio telescopes in Chile). After recalibration, according to the team of the original discovery, the phosphine signal still persisted, albeit in a much smaller amount – and more easily explained by nonbiological mechanisms.
Now enter another piece of the puzzle. In an article published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Rakesh Mogul’s group of California State Polytechnic University again analyzed data from the mass spectrometer of the American spacecraft Pioneer Venus.
In addition to an orbiter, this 1978 mission on December 9th of that year included probes that entered the Venusian atmosphere and collected data. The mass spectrometer took air samples and analyzed them.
Little attention was paid to tracking gases that are minimally present in the atmosphere. Which now led to re-analysis and concentrated on an altitude between 64.1 and 51.3 km. And then there was possible evidence of phosphine.
The data also suggest the presence of hydrogen sulfide, nitrous acid, nitric acid, hydrogen cyanide, and possibly ammonia. And the researchers point out that some of these molecules on Earth play an important role in the nitrogen cycle, which is fundamental to life here. The next step? The researchers want more data on the ground and are thinking that the DaVinci + mission that NASA is studying would be an excellent step towards that goal.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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