Scientific activity is a process that contains a lot of reflection and feedback from different participants. Most importantly, it requires a thorough critique of the rational process by which conclusions are reached. If it also involves the detection of possible life outside our planet, we must be very cautious.
This is the case with the international team, which proposed a method to detect potential biomarkers phosphine or phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Does this announcement mean that there is life on this planet?
At least as we all know, living things are mainly composed of some chemical elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. In addition, there are large amounts of sulfur, magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium, chlorine and phosphorus. Although other elements are equally important, they appear as traces.
Phosphorescence itself is not a biomarker, because it is necessary to determine its abundance and its interaction with other compounds, and it must be clearly linked to biological processes
Therefore, if phosphorus is not present in different compounds and chemical reactions, life cannot be achieved. Phosphorus (PH3, one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms, the most abundant in the universe) is one of the simplest molecules that can be formed with it. In any case, phosphine itself is not a biomarker, because its abundance and its interaction with other compounds must be determined, and it must be clearly associated with biological processes.
On the earth, phosphine appears in swamps during biological processes produced by anaerobic cells (which do not use oxygen to produce energy), but we do not know all the metabolic details of its production mechanism. In the huge planets of the solar system, even outside the solar system, in the stars, in a very well-founded way, we all think that this compound has been detected in a lifeless environment.
Through the use of radio telescopes in Chile and Hawaii (ALMA and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope), international cooperation led by astrophysicist Jane Greaves has detected a large amount of phosphorane in the atmosphere of Venus. The atmosphere should disappear soon.
After a very detailed analysis and careful presentation of evidence by the team of researchers, the influence of the media was immediate.
Factors affecting the results
But you must consider several factors that affect the results. First of all, possible detections were made through very complex analysis and only through molecular transitions. Generally, the compound can be detected in the medium only when the presence of the compound is verified at a different frequency or wavelength.
As the same author admits, this compound may be produced through geochemical or photochemical processes.
On the other hand, the identified spectral features (the “fingerprints” in the Venus spectrum) may have been contaminated by other molecules, which will lead to an overestimation of the measured abundance.
Therefore, new observations must be made in other ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum to clearly identify other “fingerprints” of phosphine.
Finally, as the author himself admits, this compound may be produced through geochemical or photochemical processes.
Living in the atmosphere of Venus?
All in all, this is a groundbreaking work that has opened up new research avenues and has seen an extraordinary possibility on the horizon of Venus: On the other hand, this planet is extremely hostile in its atmosphere. The upper level maintains the ability of biological activities. …The conditions there are similar to those we enjoy on earth.
To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, this is another step in astrobiology and may be a huge leap for mankind. If confirmed, this announcement will represent a true paradigm shift.
ESA is designing the EnVision spacecraft. If approved, the spacecraft will reach Venus in 2032. NASA’s board of directors has two other recommendations: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS.
What’s the next step? The scientific method guides us: more and better observations, independent verification, analysis of other molecular transitions and diversity in research.
In the coming months, different ground observatories with appropriate instruments will receive a large number of observation suggestions. In addition, different space agencies may adjust the direction of their space probe development plans.Europeans, ESA is designing this ship ForeseeThe reconnaissance orbiter, if approved, will reach Venus in 2032.
As far as Americans are concerned NASA has two suggestions Board of Directors: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS. In the first case, it is a probe, it will land on the ground, and within about an hour of descent time, it will study different layers of its atmosphere.
The artist’s impression of the decline of DAVINCI+ is one of NASA’s possible missions to Venus. / NASA / GSFC
Regarding Spain, we are part of ESA and therefore part of ESA’s scientific program, but due to the long duration of space missions and the administrative restrictions imposed by the Spanish bureaucracy on all public research organizations, we are not Technologists usually make full use of scientific development opportunities and their corresponding industrial influences.
Perhaps it is time to consider establishing a real Spanish space agency, which, like other European countries, truly coordinates all exploration and virtual development of space.
From the icy moons of Jupiter (Europa) and Saturn (Enceladus) to the more accessible Venus, we may see a shift in focus on solar system goals. Is the dominance of the earth’s “stepmother” Mars threatened? Probably not, the Red Planet is still the best opportunity to discover biological activity (whether it exists, past or present).
David Barrado is a researcher at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB, CSIC-INTA Hybrid Center). It also participated in the development of MIRI, one of the instruments of the upcoming JWST space telescope, and coordinated the national funding of the European Space Agency’s flat-panel satellite “Planet Hunter”.