Nov 24, 2020 - Science

Venus' phosphine puzzle

Illustration of a small spotlight lighting an empty area, a small alien is off to the side of the light.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Scientists are trying to parse out whether a possible sign of life seen in Venus' clouds is truly there.

Why it matters: The announcement that researchers may have spotted a signal of the gas phosphine in Venus' atmosphere was met with excitement by the public and scientists alike, heralded as a possible sign that microbes could live in the planet's clouds.

The intrigue: Now, the researchers behind the study and others aren't so sure that gas signal is real.

  • Some researchers have criticized the way the data used for the phosphine result — which was gathered at the limits of currently available technology — was processed, suggesting that the phosphine signal was actually just noise.
  • The ALMA Observatory data used to make the phosphine claim were also taken offline for reprocessing.
  • Once that reprocessing concluded, the scientists behind the initial study found that the phosphine signal was perhaps still there but weaker than what the original data showed.
"Now it is a weaker detection," Clara Sousa-Silva, one of the authors of the original phosphine study, said. "To be completely honest, I don't know where I lean. I find leanings are problematic in science so I try not to lean, and I am just waiting like the rest of the world for confirmation either way."

What's next: Scientists likely need new data.

  • Researchers are planning new observations, but Venus is currently on the other side of the Sun, making it impossible to observe from Earth.
  • Scientists are also holding out hope that no matter what happens with phosphine, this possible discovery has stoked excitement in jumpstarting new missions to Venus.
  • If the signal does turn out to be real, researchers still haven't come up with any viable alternative explanations for how phosphine could be on Venus without the possible presence of life, Sousa-Silva added.
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