Strange gas in Venus’s clouds may be a sign of volcanoes, not life

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By Leah Crane

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Maat Mons, a ample volcano connected Venus, successful a simulated-color radar representation from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft


The unexpected find of a state called phosphine connected Venus led to speculation that determination whitethorn beryllium beingness floating successful the planet’s clouds – but it whitethorn person travel from immense volcanic eruptions instead.

In 2020, a squad led by Jane Greaves astatine Cardiff University successful the UK saw grounds of phosphine successful Venus’s clouds, which are chiefly made of concentrated sulphuric acid. When the squad analysed ways to marque phosphine connected Venus, they didn’t find immoderate that could nutrient capable of it to explicate the signal. They suggested that it whitethorn person travel from surviving organisms, which is the main mode the state is made connected Earth.

Now, Ngoc Truong and Jonathan Lunine astatine Cornell University successful New York person calculated that if Venus is arsenic volcanically progressive arsenic immoderate of the astir volcanic areas connected Earth, that could nutrient capable phosphine to explicate the awesome without invoking the anticipation of beingness connected Venus.

The heavy ambiance connected Venus has made it hard to survey its surface, truthful we don’t cognize for definite whether it is volcanically active. “Many of the volcanic eruptions connected Earth are things that would flight our attraction if they happened connected Venus due to the fact that of this broad of sulphuric acerb clouds,” says Lunine.

However, determination are hints that volcanoes whitethorn beryllium erupting connected Venus. Radar images from orbiting spacecraft person shown features that could beryllium comparatively caller lava, but it isn’t wide that is what they are. And changing amounts of sulphur dioxide successful the aerial could beryllium explained by eruptions tossing particles aloft. Truong and Lunine suggest that phosphorus successful the planet’s mantle could erupt from volcanoes successful immense plumes, and past interact with sulphuric acerb to signifier phosphine.

Not everyone agrees that this is simply a viable explanation. “We bash not deliberation that heavy mantle plume volcanism tin nutrient capable amounts of phosphine to explicate the observations,” says Janusz Petkowski astatine the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a subordinate of Greaves’s team. He says that it isn’t wide whether determination is arsenic overmuch phosphorus successful the Venusian mantle arsenic Truong and Lunine assumed based connected comparisons with Earth.

Additionally, we don’t cognize capable astir the chemistry of Venus’s ambiance to accidental for definite what would hap if that phosphorus was erupted into the sky. “I’d expect chemic spikes of different gases if a immense plume had happened,” says Greaves. We haven’t seen specified unexplained spikes successful the abundances of different chemicals successful the atmosphere.

Lunine agrees that we don’t person capable information to accidental for definite what mightiness beryllium producing the phosphine, but helium says volcanism is simply a little outlandish imaginable mentation than beingness successful Venus’s toxic clouds. “Unfortunately, we’re sitting present with these small hints of volcanism from each these pieces of circumstantial evidence, phosphine included,” helium says. “We don’t cognize what Venus is susceptible of.”

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2021689118

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