Space Sunday: phosphine on Venus, test flights and Jupiter

Venus: home of a possible biomarker

Venus, the second planet out from the Sun and roughly the same size of Earth, is well known for being the prime example of a runaway greenhouse effect. Shrouded in dense, toxic clouds that hide its barren surface from view, the planet has an average surface temperature 464°C, its dense, carbon-dioxide dominant (96%) atmosphere places an average pressure on that surface around 92 times the mean pressure at sea level here on Earth – or roughly the same pressure as exerted by the sea at a depth of 900 metres (3,000 ft).

Yet, as I’ve recently reported (see: Space Sunday: Venus’ transformation, SLS and an asteroid), there is evidence to suggest that Venus started life as a warm, wet planet with liquid water seas of its own, only to be started on the road to becoming the hothouse we know today thanks to Jupiter’s wandering influence.

However, if this theory is correct, and Venus was once warm and wet, the question of whether it was sufficiently so to give rise to the earliest forms of basic life becomes a very real one – as does what might have happened to that life as the planet started its long transformation in the superheated, super pressurised world we see today.

A recent study suggests Venus was original a comfortably warm planet with plenty of liquid water – an environment ideal for life to arise. See:  Space Sunday: Venus’ transformation, SLS and an asteroid

Did the changing conditions simply wipe out any microbes that may have arisen there, or did those microbes themselves have been transformed, moving to the upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere where they could survive on the heat from both the Sun and rising from through the planet’s atmosphere without necessarily being dry roasted, while drawing on the minerals and chemicals also floating within the high-altitude clouds?

The idea of entirely atmosphere-borne forms of life on planets like Venus and Jupiter is not new, but this past week, the potential for some form of organic activity on Venus became a lot more real with the detection of a compound this is usually the off-shoot of organic processes within the mid-levels of the Venusian cloud layers.

Phosphine is a colourless, flammable, very toxic gas compound made up of one phosphorus and three hydrogen atoms (PH₃).  It is most commonly produced by organic life forms, although it can be created artificially. Thus its presence within the atmosphere of Venus raises the tantalizing possibility that something is alive in that atmosphere.

The detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere was made by an international team using two different telescopes in different parts of the world. The team, led by astronomers working out of Cardiff University in the UK, first identified the compound using the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JMCT), located in Hawaii. They then turned to the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, equipped with more sensitive detectors than JCMT, to confirm their findings.

The James Clark Maxwell telescope, Hawaii. Credit: Will Montgomerie/EAO/JCMT

It’s important to note that while the phosphine has been identified, the team responsible for identifying it are not jumping to the conclusion it means there is life within the Venusian atmosphere. While – in our experience – it is generally the result of organic interactions, it can be produced in the laboratory, as noted, through chemical interactions – and Venus is a veritable chemical hothouse.

What is surprising is the amount of phosphine calculated to be in the cloud layer: roughly 20 parts per billion. While a comparatively tiny amount, it is astonishing to planetary astronomers because it’s long been assumed that if any phosphorus existed in Venus’ atmosphere, it would long ago have bonded with oxygen atoms, of which there are a lot around Venus, albeit the majority being bound within the dominant carbon dioxide.

Following their discovery the team, led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University and ideo Sagawa at Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan, sought potentially natural means for the formation of phosphine around Venus.  These included things such as chemical reactions in the atmosphere driven by strong sunlight or lightning, or the interaction of chemicals coming from volcanic activity, or delivered by meteorites. However, none of these mechanisms could account for the volume of phosphine Venus appears to have.

Even so, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the phosphine is the result of tiny Venuisan organisms; as the team note, it could be the result of as yet unknown photochemistry or geochemistry mechanisms within the planet’s atmosphere or the planet itself.

Although we concluded that known chemical processes cannot produce enough phosphine, there remains the possibility that some hitherto unknown abiotic process exists on Venus. We have a lot of homework to do before reaching an exotic conclusion, including re-observation of Venus to verify the present result itself.

– Study member ideo Sagawa

Obviously, to determine whether or not biotic or abiotic processes are responsible for the phosphine, further study – preferably close-up – of Venus’ atmosphere is required. Although further Earth-based observations from Earth can help confirm the volume of phosphine within the planet’s atmosphere, satellites orbiting Venus will offer a far more complete picture, simply because they can study the planet in detail over the course of years, building up a complete picture of its composition using spectrographic analysis.

Two Venus missions – VERITAS, the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy orbit and DAVINCI+, an atmospheric penetrator, are already being considered by NASA as planetary missions among missions to other destinations, with one of this group of proposals due to be selected in April 2021. Either could help sniff out the phosphine and potentially help identify its cause. Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter may also help in further studies of phosphine around Venus.

The private company Rocket Lab has been developing plans to mount its own mission to Venus for some time, using their Electron rocket, which has been operating since 2018, and their new Photon upper stage, which made its début in august 2020. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck believes that Venus has been undervalued as a place for stud (although there have been some 30 fly, orbital and lander missions since 1962).

Continue reading “Space Sunday: phosphine on Venus, test flights and Jupiter”

Wandering Poughkeepsie in Second Life

Poughkeepsie, September 2020 – click any image for full size

Poughkeepsie is a parcel covering just under a quarter of a Full region which has the bonus LI capacity applied, that was recently highlighted in the Destination Guide, prompting me to hop over and take a look.

Held and in part designed by Peresphone Kore (LeriaDraven) – Loly Hallison performed a lot of the general landscaping -, the parcel has an interesting description and greeting, reading in turn (via About Land and a sign post at the landing point):

An amazingly whimsical photography sim with plenty to see and do. From date night, chilling by the fire, relaxing in the library, or taking on a game in the arcade (yes the games really work!) This is all my own creation and I’m super excited for this!
Warning. You are about to enter someone else’s dream.
Poughkeepsie, September 2020

Both the description and the sign present a huge promise, and visually, the parcel does deliver on this promise. Located in the north-west of the region, it offers a north-facing beach cupped between a curtain wall of rock that runs diagonally across the back of the parcel from east to south-west, and an upland area. The curtain of cliffs neatly separates Poughkeepsie, with the western table plateau overlooking the north beach and the lowlands running back from it to the feet of the cliffs.

Topped to a large house, the rocky plateau falls directly to the sea to the west, but also hides a low-lying corner of the parcel in which sits a second house complete with a west-facing beach of its own, both screened by giant oaks. This house, and the one top the plateau appear open to the public, with the latter reached by curving stone steps rising from the landing point, the former by following a winding path that curls around the base of the rocky table. This second house, sitting within its screen of giant oaks has something of a Halloween feel in the grounds on its landward side, whilst the shingle beach on its waterside offers the opportunity for a game of chess.

Poughkeepsie, September 2020

Each of the houses is fully furnished, offering multiple rooms to explore, while the house on the plateau additionally offers a rock-and-wood terrace / deck for outdoor seating and an outbuilding that looks like a greenhouse converted for use as a little café. A barn and field, home to cattle and sheep may at first give the impression this is a working farm. However, given the expansive nature of the house, and the small number of animals, it’s hard not to wonder if the latter are more a hobby for the owners, rather than a working source of income.

The lowlands of the parcel offer their own attractions. There’s the sandy, north-side beach, with multiple places to sit and a view of an off-shore (and off-region, although it doesn’t appear to be phantom / without physics) fairy-tale castle. On the grass behind the beach is a little open market area offering fresh fruit and veg, with a seating area ranged before it, complete with cakes, toffee apples and drinks available to visitors. It again suggests that maybe the house up on the plateau is might be a working farm – but equally, it also stands as a vignette on its own.

Poughkeepsie, September 2020

Also to be found in the lowlands are ruins, a folly and the unexpected – an old British red telephone box – as well a sculptures and a fair amount of local wild life. There’s even a touch of Tolkien waiting to be found, although saying Mellon before it as instructed by the runes didn’t result in the expected (and by “saying Mellon” I do mean touching it to see if anything happened, given its scripted nature).

Photogenic, rich in detail and with much to see, Poughkeepsie makes for a rewarding visit – but I say so with a caveat: a visit does come with something of a performance hit. How much of this is down to what is in the parcel itself, and how much is down to what’s in the region as a whole, is hard to say (some of the sculptie giant oaks in the parcel do have high render costs). I found my system peaked a 7 fps with shadows enabled at a moderate draw distance, mostly hovering at 4-5 fps. Disabling shadows raised this to the mid-teens., although even this could drop into single-digits – so be prepared to make adjustments if you’re on  a mid-range system and are used to having things like shadows on all the time.

Poughkeepsie, September 2020

Nevertheless, Poughkeepsie offers a rewarding visit for those willing to make any necessary adjustments.

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