Pole in science team that detected possible presence of life on Venus

Doctor Janusz Pętkowski from the MIT. Janusz Pętkowski, press materials

A Pole is among the group of international scientists that stunned the world by discovering a gas in the atmosphere of Venus that might come from a living organism.

Janusz Pętkowski, along with scientists from MIT, Cardiff University and other institutions, published their findings in the magazine Nature Astronomy.

They observed the gas using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array observatory in Chile. It has a rare molecule made up from one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms. Unexpectedly, it was detected in the clouds of the brightest planet in the skies. What makes the discovery surprising is that on Earth phosphine is either produced artificially or comes from microbes that develop in an environment without oxygen.

Venus is thought to be uninhabitable.NASA/Public domain

A scientist working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pętkowski is part of the research team. The Pole, who is an astrobiologist, was responsible (together with William Bains, a biochemist from MIT) for analysing all possible physical and chemical processes that could potentially lead to the production of hydrogen phosphate on Venus. No such processes that could produce hydrogen phosphate on Venus were found.

“A team of scientists led by Jane Greaves of the University of Cardiff - including myself - discovered the presence of hydrogen phosphide, also called phosphine, in the atmosphere of the planet Venus,” Doctor Pękowski told PAP. “More specifically, in the clouds, about 55 kilometres above the surface of this planet.

The phosphine in Venus’s clouds on Earth is either produced artificially or comes from microbes that develop in an environment without oxygen.DARTS archive/Meli thev/CC-SA 4.0

“The discovery of this compound in the clouds of Venus is all the more unexpected because at the moment we don’t know of processes that could produce this gas - for example, in geological processes or in the atmosphere - on rocky planets such as Venus or Earth.”

Venus, the second planet from the Sun in the solar system, was perceived as toxic and uninhabitable. Life as we know it wouldn’t be able to survive on its surface – the dense atmosphere consists of mostly carbon dioxide, the pressure is 92 times higher than that on Earth, while temperatures can reach 464 Celsius degrees.

Due to its toxic clouds (85 percent sulphuric acid and 15 percent water), Venus wasn’t considered as a probable environment for the existence of life.

Speaking about the probable causes of the discovery, the astrobiologist said: “There are two possibilities. Either there is the production of hydrogen phosphorus as a result of completely unknown to us physical, chemical, geological or photochemical processes on Venus. Or we are dealing with the fact that there is possibly some form of life in Venus' clouds. Both of these variants are unimaginable! In other words, we either don’t understand the chemistry of rocky planets, or we have the first potential suggestion that life is possible on this planet adjacent to the Earth.”

The only way to find out where the Venus phosphine is coming from is to send a probe to investigate the gas and its environment. Such missions have already been considered by NASA in the form of the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS initiatives. However, as Doctor Pętkowski explains, a direct search for life in the clouds of Venus would take a dedicated mission.