Astrobiology: September 2020 Archives

Hints of life on Venus, RAS

"An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, today announced the discovery of a rare molecule - phosphine - in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes - floating free of the scorching surface, but still needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorus, could point to this extra-terrestrial 'aerial' life. The new discovery is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy."

Keith's 14 Sep update: Apparently the RAS has changed its mind about how it is going to do their big announcement and a live stream will be presented at 11:00 am EDT here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IIj3e5BFp0

Keith's 13 September 18:32 pm note: There is a big press release coming out tomorrow (Monday 14 September) morning at the Royal Astronomical Society. They want you to know its big news. The press release has been issued in advance to some journalists under embargo - but not others (like us). We have not seen the press release. But according to several sources knowledgeable with the details of the announcement (who are not under embargo) phosphine has been discovered in the atmosphere of Venus. Its presence suggests - suggests - some strange chemistry going on since phosphine is something you'd only expect to see if life (as we know it) was involved.

The presence of phosphine is seen by many astrobiologists as a "biosignature" i.e. an indicator of the possible presence of life. The detection was made by the Atacama (ALMA) array located in Chile and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope located in Hawaii. The research team includes members from the University of Manchester, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cardiff University. A paper will appear in the 14 September issue of Nature Astronomy.

From what we're told the researchers have concluded that abiotic mechanisms (i.e. ones that do not involve life) that might produce phosphine cannot account for the large amount that they have detected. The phosphine has been detected in the region within the atmosphere of Venus that is considered by some to be potentially habitable. As to what spin the researchers put on this, we'll have to wait for reporters who have the press release or are allowed to participate in the Zoom press conference thing tomorrow at 15:00 GMT to let us know.


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