Archives For Venus

This artistic illustration depicts the Venusian surface and atmosphere. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial “aerial” life. Confirming the presence of life, however, will require much more work.

“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock!”, says team leader Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK, who first spotted signs of phosphine in observations from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), operated by the East Asian Observatory, in Hawaiʻi. Confirming their discovery required using 45 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a more sensitive telescope in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimeter, much longer than the human eye can see — only telescopes at high altitude can detect it effectively.

The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, US and Japan, estimates that phosphine exists in Venus’s clouds at a small concentration, only about twenty molecules in every billion. Following their observations, they ran calculations to see whether these amounts could come from natural non-biological processes on the planet. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. These non-biological sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere.

While the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s clouds came as a surprise, the researchers are confident in their detection. “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus,” says team member Anita Richards of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester. “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” adds Greaves, who led the study published today in Nature Astronomy.

Another team member, Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, has investigated phosphine as a “biosignature” gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it. She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”

The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees Celsius, they are incredibly acidic — around 90% sulfuric acid — posing major issues for any microbes trying to survive there.

ESO astronomer and ALMA European Operations Manager Leonardo Testi, who did not participate in the new study, says: “The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets’ atmospheres. Confirming the existence of life on Venus’s atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth.”

More observations of Venus and of rocky planets outside our Solar System, including with ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope, may help gather clues on how phosphine can originate on them and contribute to the search for signs of life beyond Earth.

On Monday, May 9 solar observers in North America will be able to see the silhouette of planet Mercury as it passes between Earth and our Sun. The event, called a transit, is relatively rare — though not so rare as a transit of Venus — and may cause interest in viewing the Sun. WARNING: Looking at the Sun, especially through optical instruments, requires extreme caution! Permanent vision damage can result if proper precautions are not taken! Click here for a good article on safely observing the Sun.

At present we DO NOT plan to open Stephens Observatory for the transit but if plans change, the announcement will be made here — check back later. If conditions are clear, we hope to post images made via telescope at a remote location.

Tiny planet Mercury will appear as a correspondingly tiny black dot against the Sun’s brilliant disk. If any sunspots are present on Sol’s face, compare them with Mercury: the planet will be distinctly round and noticeably darker than sunspots, and from minute to minute it will move — sunspot motion takes days!

Image: Planetary positions on May 9, 2016.

May 9 Transit of Mercury – Note how the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth are “tilted” making line-of-sight alignment a rare occurrence.

Viewed from Earth, transits occur when one of the inner planets crosses the line of sight between our world and the Sun; only Venus and Mercury are ever able to do that. A transit, then, is a bit like a solar eclipse only viewed at a greater distance and blocking only a small amount of the Sun’s light.

Transits would occur more often but for the fact that the orbits of Mercury and Venus are “tipped” so that they do not align along the same plane as Earth’s path. Only when the planets are in the right position where the line of sight passes straight through to the Sun do we see transits and with Mercury, that happens only about 13 times per century. After May 9, the next transits of Mercury will take place in November 2019, November 2032, and November 2049. The most recent transit of Venus took place in June 2012 and will not be seen again until December 2117.

Monday’s transit of Mercury will take place over several hours. For us in Northern Ohio, the transit begins at about 7:12 AM Eastern Daylight Time with the Sun low in the east. Midpoint of Mercury’s passage will be at 10:57 AM, and the transit ends at 2:42 PM.

Cloudy skies? Don’t have proper gear to view the Sun? Fret not! There will be “live” webcasts of the event from various sources during Mercury’s passage. Use your favorite web search engine to find good sources and check for a planned broadcast via NASA TV. NASA will stream a live program on NASA TV and the agency’s Facebook page from 10:30 to 11:30 AM — an informal roundtable during which experts representing planetary, heliophysics and astrophysics will discuss the science behind the Mercury transit. Viewers can ask questions via Facebook and Twitter using #AskNASA.

We hope to post a few links here later.

Illustration: January 2016: Five Planets Visible in the Pre-Dawn Sky

January 2016: Five Planets Visible in the Pre-Dawn Sky

 

Over recent weeks we have watched as several planets have appeared close together in our morning sky — when clear, that is — and even seen them shift their positions as the days passed! Beginning this frigid week and continuing into mid-February, five of Earth’s Solar System siblings will be visible, spanning the southern sky. This is the first time since 2005 that this planetary lineup has occurred. If we get a break in morning cloud cover go out, just before dawn’s early light, and look for the planetary parade. Little Mercury will be the hardest to spot being both dim and close to the horizon. Venus and Jupiter will be easy as they are the brightest of the bunch. Golden Saturn and finally reddish Mars should also be easy to find though Mars isn’t a standout. The gathering will occur again late this summer and in the evening sky. The planets aren’t really very much closer together in space during this time. The chart below illustrates the current relative positions of the planets; it’s our point of view from Earth that makes creates the scene: something like watching racers on a race track, appearing closer and farther apart as they run laps in their concentric lanes.

Illustration: January 2016: Planetary Positions - Area Between Lines of Sight Illustrates Area of Space We See

January 2016: Planetary Positions – Area Between Lines of Sight Illustrates Area of Space We See

Image: Jupiter and Venus Converge June 30 - Chart Courtesy Sky & Telescope

Jupiter and Venus Converge June 30 – Chart Courtesy Sky & Telescope

Let’s hope for clear skies the evening of June 30 when the ongoing conjunction of Jupiter and Venus gets really cozy! Tuesday evening will see the two planets sharing a space only 1/3-degree apart in our sky; they will look like a brilliant double star. After Tuesday’s encounter, the planets will drift slowly apart night-by-night but will remain a beautiful sight in twilight. Chart courtesy Sky & Telescope – SkyAndTelescope.com