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Insights into Editorial: What discovery of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus means

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Context:

Recently, phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus was discovered by an international team of astronomers. The discovery throws light about the possibility of the presence of life forms on Venus.

European Space Agency’s mission, Venus Express, found signs of ozone, made of three oxygen atoms and considered a biomarker, in the upper atmosphere of Venus, in 2011.

Traces of phosphine, another biomarker, in its atmosphere has just given the search for extra-terrestrial life a shot in the arm.

Importance of Space Missions:

Space Mission is a journey, by a manned or unmanned vehicle, into space to gather scientific data.

It is important for global partnerships and exploration capabilities that help global preparedness for protecting the Earth from catastrophic events such as some asteroid strikes, advancing collaborative research on space weather and protecting spacecraft by developing new means for space debris removal.

About the planet Venus:

Venus is Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. It is also known as earth’s twin. Venus is wrapped in a thick and toxic atmosphere that traps in heat.

Surface temperatures reach a scorching 880 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead. It is the hottest planet in the solar system.

Highly dense, 65 miles of cloud and haze, puts atmospheric pressure more than 90 times what’s felt on Earth’s surface.

Venus has no moons and no rings.

Venus’ solid surface is a volcanic landscape covered with extensive plains featuring high volcanic mountains and vast ridged plateaus.

The planet’s atmosphere is primarily suffocating carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid clouds.

About Phosphine (PH3):

  1. Apart from being produced in industrial processes, phosphine, a colourless but smelly gas, is known to be made only by some species of bacteria that survive in the absence of oxygen.
  2. It is a highly reactive and flammable, extremely smelly toxic gas, found (among other places) in heaps of penguin dung and the bowels of badgers and fish.
  3. It is present in Earth’s atmosphere in only trace quantities, because it is rapidly destroyed by the process of oxidation.
  4. The fact that this molecule is nevertheless present in our oxidising atmosphere is because it is continuously produced by microbes.
  5. The temperature of Venus is too high, and its atmosphere is highly acidic, just two of the things that would make life impossible.

Phosphine gas discovery is a potential game changer:

It could be atmospheric chemistry or pollution from unseen volcanoes. But there’s a chance — a not insignificant chance that scientists have made the first clear discovery of life beyond Earth.

The presence of airborne phosphine is a little like scat stumbled upon in the desert: a signal that life is in the neighbourhood.

But if, indeed, living organisms are floating in the dense air of Venus, it would enormously strengthen the argument that life isn’t a cosmic miracle.

ISRO’s Shukrayaan-1 mission in race to the fiery planet:

  1. ISRO’s planned mission for Venus is scheduled for a mid-2023 launch.
  2. Venus is very similar to Earth in terms of its size, density, mass, gravity and bulk composition and is often called Earth’s “twin sister”.
  3. While the surface of Venus is one of the hottest places in the solar system, its atmosphere above the gaseous clouds is a totally different world.
  4. ISRO’s Venus mission Shukrayaan will study atmospheric chemistry, dynamics and compositional variations of Venus and also find out surface/sub surface features and re-surfacing processes.
  5. There’s one spacecraft currently flying around Venus — Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter. It’s the second dedicated Venus mission.
  6. The European Venus Express mission operated in orbit around the planet from 2006 through 2014.

Conclusion:

On Earth, phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments. It is considered as a marker for life.

The researchers said that their research provided evidence “for anomalous & unexplained chemistry” on Venus.

The finding can further ignite interest in space missions to Venus. Missions to Venus are not new.

Spacecraft have been going near the planet since the 1960s, and some of them have even made a landing.

In fact, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is also planning a mission to Venus, tentatively called Shukrayaan, in the near future.