Sep 15, 2020 - Science

What's next for the big Venus discovery

Venus as seen from orbit

Venus as seen by the Galileo spacecraft in 1990. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists still have a long way to go before they can say definitively what’s creating the phosphine — a possible signature of life — detected on Venus.

The big picture: Science is an iterative process, and this discovery is no exception.

State of play: While finding this signal of phosphine is a big deal, it's not proof of life, and future observations will have to repeat and then elaborate upon the just-released study.

  • Future research will use other observatories to hunt for phosphine and other chemicals that might be associated with it in Venus' atmosphere in different wavelengths of light.
  • The authors of the study had plans to perform more follow-up observations this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way, with telescopes shutting down around the world.
"I would think that every team that learns about this should, if they can, and they have the capabilities of resolving this gas, and resolving Venus should be making follow-up measurements to see if there is any kind of change. ... But also just to validate findings to make sure that there are other independent teams that can replicate the findings."
— Paul Byrne, planetary geologist at North Carolina State University, told Axios

That validation is particularly important because some scientists aren't necessarily sold that the signal from phosphine is real and robust in the way the authors of the new study claim that it is.

  • “They took the right steps to verify the signal, but I’m still not convinced that this is real,” John Carpenter, an ALMA observatory scientist, told National Geographic. “If it’s real, it’s a very cool result, but it needs follow-up to make it really convincing.”

What's next: Ultimately, experts say they will need some kind of probe launched to study Venus' atmosphere from close range to truly understand whether life exists there.

  • The next decadal survey — during which planetary scientists set the field's priorities for the coming decade — is coming up, so it will be interesting to see whether the community recommends a new mission to Venus in light of the news.
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