Scientists Detect Possible Signs of Life on Venus Using Hawaii Telescope

Sep 14, 2020

In a monumental announcement Monday, scientists say they have detected a chemical compound in the atmosphere of Venus that is strongly associated with biological life.


Using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea, an international team of astronomers identified large quantities of the chemical phosphine suspended in the Venusian atmosphere.


Phosphine is a bi-product of microbial life and is found prominently in Earth’s atmosphere.


The team behind the discovery stressed the presence of the chemical is not definitive proof of life, but also noted that organic life is the only known source that can produce phosphine in the quantity found.


Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory which operates the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, told HPR that phosphine is a volatile gas that chemically breaks down quickly.


“So the only way to see it in large amounts is if the process is continually going and continuing to produce the gas,” Dempsey noted.


“In our atmosphere, it’s made as a waste product of microbes which are sucked up into the clouds above our planet and they produce this gas phosphene. So no one expected to have phosphine on Venus,” she added.


Mauna Kea was one of only a few sites on Earth capable of making the necessary observations. Dempsey told HPR that the idea of looking for phosphine on Venus was considered so far-fetched that no other observatory on Earth would agree to do the study.


The observations were led by Jane Greaves, a former Mauna Kea astronomer, who is now a professor at Cardiff University in Wales.


Several Hawaii-based personnel participated, including the telescope operator E’Lisa Lee, who was an undergraduate student at UH Hilo when the observations were made.


This is a developing story and will be updated.