Volcanoes Might Explain That Phosphine on Venus

Sukrit Ranjan, a planetary photochemist at Northwestern University who worked on the original phosphine discovery as well as the follow-up study helmed by Petkowski, says that while his team agrees with “the guts of the calculation” described in Truong and Lunine’s paper, the disagreement lies in which assumptions can be realistically made when modeling volcanic processes on Venus that could produce phosphine in the atmosphere. “When there was ambiguity, we tried to make it as easy as possible for an abiotic explanation of phosphine,” he says of his team’s latest paper, but their analysis kept falling short.

“Volcanoes are a lovely way out,” Sousa-Silva says, and adds that it was one of the first explanations for the phosphine that her team explored. “But it just doesn’t really work out in our calculations.” She notes that there are known ways phosphine can form abiotically—like in the violent storms of Jupiter and Saturn—but that these methods are difficult and inefficient, and require even more extreme environments than Venus.

Ranjan also stresses that in the 2020 preprint, as well as the latest peer-reviewed version, his team doesn’t exactly rule out volcanic activity as a possibility—they only claim that it cannot be explained with known geochemical processes. “Even life is not a natural explanation for phosphine in the atmosphere,” he says, because life as we know it could not possibly survive in the acidic environment of Venus’ clouds. But evolution could have developed tricks elsewhere that it hasn’t on Earth, so the universe may surprise us: “Habitability is a frontier to be explored,” he says.

Even without the promise of life, finding phosphine on the planet would be an exciting prospect by itself for Sousa-Silva, who has studied the molecule for over a decade. “Something strange is making the phosphine,” she says. “And I’ll be thrilled to find out what it is—neighbors or not.”

“I think the only thing we truly know about Venus,” she adds, “is that we know very little about Venus.”

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Petkowski welcomes the hearty debate between scientists. “We are not afraid to be wrong,” he says. And even if further scrutiny of the data rules out the presence of any phosphine at all, Petkowski says it wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of life for him. “The story is not over,” he says.

Upcoming NASA missions, planned long before scientists saw possible hints of life, will help solve the mystery of phosphine in the atmosphere. VERITAS, set to launch in 2028, is a spacecraft that will map out the surface and look for the presence of deep underground water spewed out as vapor by active volcanoes. Around the same time, a spherical probe named DAVINCI+ will plunge through the toxic atmosphere and measure the composition of the Venusian clouds, which could confirm or rule out the existence of phosphine.

Suzanne Smrekar, the NASA geophysicist leading the VERITAS mission, says that the possibility of life on Venus is exciting—and a wake-up call. “It’s going to take a very long time to say we believe there is life,” she says. “But it’s a rallying cry to investigate this area of science much more definitively.”

Truong and Lunine, who began working on the volcano hypothesis before NASA selected the discovery missions, are standing by their assertion that it can plausibly explain the presence of phosphine, and they are eager to see what comes next. “I hope this increases interest in Venus as a planet,” Lunine says. But he feels that it shouldn’t have taken a debate about life to spark so much curiosity about Venus. Even without life, we should want to get to know our planetary sibling, which is so similar to our home in many ways, “and yet it seems so different geologically,” he says. “This is just another reason to think of Venus as an interesting target for exploration.”

Update 7-20-2021 7:32 PM ET: This story was updated to include comments and additional information from Clara Sousa-Silva.


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