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28 Jan, 2021 14:26

Something stinks: Life in clouds above Venus unlikely as ‘phosphine’ gas discovery was more likely sulfur dioxide

Something stinks: Life in clouds above Venus unlikely as ‘phosphine’ gas discovery was more likely sulfur dioxide

In 2020, a team led by astronomers in the UK announced the discovery of phosphine gas on Venus and with it, the potential for life floating in the planet's clouds. New research has dashed those hopes rather dramatically.

The presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus necessitated some form of biological life to produce it, as there is no other known natural process by which phosphine can be generated. The prospect of some form of life existing on our doorstep was a tantalizing one but it now appears to have been undone. 

A team led by researchers at the University of Washington (UW), including numerous NASA scientists, reinterpreted the original radio telescope observations and produced new models and simulations to comprehensively refute the claims of phosphine gas presence on Venus.

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Their paper was accepted to the Astrophysical Journal and posted to the preprint site arXiv pending peer review. 

“Instead of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, the data are consistent with an alternative hypothesis: They were detecting sulfur dioxide,” said co-author Victoria Meadows, a UW professor of astronomy. 

The foul-smelling gas is the third most-common chemical compound found in Venus' intense atmosphere and makes a lot more sense under scrutiny than the optimistic idea that organic life was floating in the clouds above one of the least hospitable worlds in our solar system.

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The presence of sulfur dioxide explains the initial observations and is also highly consistent with what the scientific community already knows about the gaseous planet. 

The latest research also suggests that the initial signal that triggered the excitement about phosphine originated in the upper atmosphere, far above Venus cloud layer, largely precluding the possibility that phosphine, let alone life, could exist at such altitudes. 

The search for extraterrestrial life continues, though likely away from Venus with its toxic atmosphere, high pressures and surface temperatures rivaled only by our sun, at least in our solar system.

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