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How A Stinky Gas Is Helping Search For Life In The Universe

Photo: NASA

An unusual gas associated with life was found in the atmosphere of Venus, something that scientists thought impossible to exist on one of our closest planetary neighbors.

The discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus caught scientists by surprise because their efforts were focused on finding the gas outside of our solar system.

“This phosphine was measured by a team using a telescope to actually calibrate a model they had [to] look for phosphine in the atmospheres of exoplanets, extrasolar planets or those that orbit other stars, because phosphine for a long time has been thought to be a biologically relevant gas,” Paul Byrne, Associate Professor of planetary science at NC State University said.

LISTEN: Take a deep dive into the findings from Venus on WMFE’s podcast Are We There Yet?

On planet Earth, Phosphine is often associated with living organisms. “It’s a gas that’s commonly produced by rotting vegetation or even inside the intestines of animals on earth,” Byrne said.

However, Byrne said the findings aren’t enough to confirm there’s life on Venus.

“Phosphine is a gas that we attribute to biological processes on earth, but there are non-living processes that make phosphine as well,” he said.

“This isn’t a detection of alien life. It is a detection of unusual and anomalous chemistry,” Byrne added.

MIT quantum astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva has studied this molecule for nearly a decade. It’s “a molecule associated with many small hidden ecosystems,” she said. “Places like swamps and sewage and marshland and rice fields, and sludges, and the farts and excrements of many animals, badgers, penguins, and babies.”

All of these ecosystems have two things in common: They’re anaerobic, meaning they don’t rely on oxygen and they’re characterized by an unpleasant smell.

“Phosphine was known for being this horrific molecule that smells terrible, that is flammable[and] that is extremely toxic,” Sousa-Silva said.

Astronomers are searching planets outside our solar system for this stinky marker. “Phosphine is [also] a biosignature for anaerobic life,” Sousa-Silva said and she hopes searching for the molecule can help track down life in the universe.

“If there is life on Venus, and they’re producing phosphine, and life on Earth produces phosphine. I’m inclined to think that is actually quite a common choice for life that doesn’t like oxygen.”

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