Ever since the announcement last September that astronomers found evidence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, the planet has been getting a lot of attention. It’s not surprising. Phosphine is a potential biosignature: On Earth, it is produced by microbial life. Might a similar biological process be taking place in the skies of our sister planet? It’s a tantalizing prospect, and is definitely worth examining closely, but it’s too early to be sure. Microbes aren’t the only way to get phosphine. A new paper published on July 12th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that volcanism might instead be to blame for the strange chemistry in the Venusian cloud tops.
The Story So Far
Early last fall, a research team led by Professor Jane Greaves (Cardiff University) announced the discovery of phosphine to worldwide fanfare. The team’s findings were based on data from two telescopes: the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), both of which suggested the presence of phosphene in a quantity as high as 20 parts per billion (PPB) in Venus’ atmosphere.
Phosphene (PH3) is not a very stable gas and tends to decay quickly, meaning that for it to exist on Venus (or on Earth for that matter), there must be an ongoing process replenishing it. On gas giants like Jupiter, the high heat and pressure created by the planet’s enormous gravity well can easily produce phosphene, but such conditions do not exist on smaller rocky worlds. Here on Earth, microbes and industrial processes can create it, and so can volcanos.
On Venus, the sheer amount of phosphine detected seemed to suggest that geological processes like volcanos were not sufficient to be the source of the gas. Greaves and her team were careful to rule out, as best they could, any known geological and chemical processes before making the dramatic claim that it could be a sign of alien life. As far as they could tell, biology was the only known process that fit the data.
Of course, the claim attracted intense scrutiny, and within a few months several attempts had been made to duplicate the result. As often happens, these additional studies complicated the picture. Some researchers suggested that what Greaves thought was phosphine might actually be sulfur dioxide (SO2) in a different layer of the atmosphere. The discovery of a software malfunction at ALMA brought the data further into question.
The follow-on studies eventually seemed to settle on the position that yes, phosphine is indeed present on Venus, but in much lower quantities than the initial study suggested: closer to 1-5ppb, not 20ppb. These lower quantities opened the door for an alternative to the biological hypothesis: Venusian volcanos.
Phosphine From Explosive Volcanism
Even with the new, lower phosphine levels (1-5ppb), it would still require an extraordinary volcanic event to recreate what has been observed in Venus’ atmosphere. Simple lava flows would not push phosphene high enough to match the observations. It would take a mighty eruption to push the material to its position about 70km above the planet’s surface. Ngoc Truong and Jonathan Lunine, researchers who authored a new paper examining the potential role of volcanism in phosphine production, compared the necessary event to the famously dramatic eruptions of Krakatau in Indonesia.
The process works like this: magma deep within the planet is rich in a substance called phosphide. When blasted into the air by an eruption, the phosphide can mix with sulphuric acid, which is common in Venus’s atmosphere. The reaction between these two substances produces – you guessed it – phosphene. As Lunine puts it, “The phosphine is not telling us about the biology of Venus. It’s telling us about the geology. Science is pointing to a planet that has active explosive volcanism today or in the very recent past.”
Lunine and Truong make a compelling case. But here’s the catch with the volcanism hypothesis. We aren’t even sure if Venus is volcanically active (it was in the past, but now? We just don’t know). Despite being so close to Earth, we know surprisingly little about the surface of Venus. Its clouds hinder observations in visible light wavelengths, and landers sent to the planet’s surface don’t survive more than a few hours in the harsh environment. Orbiters like Magellan (launch in 1989) mapped the planet using radar, but reliable information about the planet’s geology is surprisingly hard to come by.
NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in 1979 found sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere that might point to volcanism, and Magellan observed some geological features that could mean recent volcanic activity, but none of it is conclusive. For the moment, the notion of active volcanos on Venus is just as speculative as the notion of microbial life. Both theories work hard to make sense of the evidence as best they can, but neither can be proven: yet.
If we are able to solve this puzzle and learn the source of the phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, we will have learned a great deal about Venus in the process, regardless of the answer. If microbial life is the source of the phosphene, the implications are obviously game-changing. If the source of the phosphene is eruptive volcanism, we will have learned something new about the geology of a planet that has long been shrouded in mystery.
Three new missions are scheduled to visit Venus in the near future: two spacecraft from NASA and one from the European Space Agency (ESA). None of the missions are directly designed to look for phosphine, but all are intended to give a fuller picture of the planetary system. One of the key priorities for these missions is to provide a much higher resolution map of Venus’ surface than Magellan was able to make. These three missions could help solve the phosphine mystery, but, as usual in planetary science, they are likely to raise as many questions as they answer.
Where am I placing my bets? It’s a tough call. Venus is a hostile place – volcanism seems more plausible there than life – but the Universe is a strange place, and extremophile microbes have been found in inhospitable habitats here on Earth. If something is alive in the clouds of Venus, it would be a surprise, but it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of the possible. Only time will tell, and the real answer may end up being something else entirely. Both Greaves and Lunine admit that the source of the phosphine might end up being a third option: there might be some unknown chemistry going on in Venus’ atmosphere that we’ve yet to discover.
Whatever the case, I look forward to finding out.
NASA’s Europa Clipper will fly on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – The Verge
The Europa Clipper got the green light from NASA in 2015. It will fly by the moon 45 times, providing researchers with a tantalizing look at the icy world, believed to have an ocean lurking under its icy crust. The Clipper is equipped with instruments that will help scientists figure out if the moon could support life.
For years, the Clipper was legally obligated to launch on NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS). But with the SLS perpetually delayed and over budget, NASA has urged Congress to consider allowing the Europa Clipper to fly commercial. Switching to another vehicle could save up to $1 billion, NASA’s inspector general said in 2019.
NASA got permission to consider commercial alternatives to the SLS in the 2021 budget, and started officially looking for a commercial alternative soon after.
The SLS has powerful allies in Congress, who have kept the costly program alive for years, even as it blew past budgets and deadlines. The first flight of the SLS was originally supposed to happen in 2017. That mission — launching an uncrewed trip around the Moon — has since been pushed to November 2021, and keeping to that new schedule remains “highly unlikely” according to NASA’s Office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency.
SpaceX first launched its Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, and started flying satellites in 2019. Earlier this year, NASA selected the rocket as the ride to space for two parts of a planned space station orbiting the Moon.
Researchers Develop Genome Techniques to Analyze Adaptation of Cattle – AZoCleantech
Jared Decker, a fourth-generation cattle farmer, has been aware of cattle suffering from health and productivity problems when they are moved from one location to another. The shift is from a region where they had spent generations to another place with a different climate, grass, or elevation.
Decker, as a researcher at the University of Missouri, looks at the chances of using science to resolve this issue, thereby serving a dual purpose to enhance the cattle’s welfare and sealing the leak in an almost $50 billion industry in the United States.
When I joined MU in 2013, I moved cattle from a family farm in New Mexico to my farm here in Missouri. New Mexico is hot and dry, and Missouri is also hot but has much more humidity. The cattle certainly didn’t do as well as they did in New Mexico, and that spurred me to think about how we could give farmers more information about what their animals need to thrive.
Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
The study was published in the journal PLOS Genetics on July 23rd, 2021.
Decker and his research team have revealed the proof exposing the fact that cattle are losing their key environmental adaptations. The researchers regard this as a loss due to the lack of genetic information available to farmers.
After assessing the genetic materials dating back to the 1960s, the team determined particular DNA variations linked with adaptations that could someday be used to develop DNA tests for cattle. These tests could help educate the farmers regarding the adaptability of cattle from one environment or another.
We can see that, for example, historically cows in Colorado are likely to have adaptations that ease the stress on their hearts at high altitudes. But if you bring in bulls or semen from a different environment, the frequency of those beneficial adaptations is going to decrease. Over generations, that cow herd will lose advantages that would have been very useful to a farmer in Colorado.
Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri
The research team included then-doctoral student Troy Rowan who had examined 60 years’ worth of bovine DNA data from tests of cryo-preserved semen produced by cattle breed associations. They observed that, as time runs, the genes related to higher fertility and productivity increased as a result of careful selection by farmers. Also, many genes relating to environmental adaptations have decreased.
According to Decker, the farmers are not to be blamed as there are no affordable methods available at present to identify the suitability of cattle for a specific environment. The study also proposes easy-to-use cattle DNA tests that focus on the particular adaptations identified in the study.
Such adaptations include resistance to vasoconstriction, which is a process of blood vessel narrowing that takes place at high elevation and puts excessive stress on the heart. Also creating resistance to the toxin in the grass can result in vasoconstriction and tolerance for increased temperature or humidity. All these factors tend to decline over generations when the cattle are shifted from the associated surroundings.
Sometimes, natural and artificial selection are moving in the same direction, and other times there is a tug of war between them. Efficiency and productivity have vastly improved in the last 60 years, but environmental stressors are never going to go away. Farmers need to know more about the genetic makeup of their herd, not only for the short-term success of their farm, but for the success of future generations.
Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
The first widely adopted genetic test for cattle was developed at the University of Missouri in 2007. Decker and Rowan are looking forward to giving further details of the development. Both the researchers grew up on farms with a desire to use research to help farmers to balance farm traditions of America with the requirement for eco-friendly business practices.
“As a society, we must produce food more sustainably and be good environmental stewards. Making sure a cow’s genetics match their environment makes life better for cattle and helps farmers run efficient and productive operations. It’s a win-win,” concluded Decker.
Rowan, T. N., et al. (2021) Powerful detection of polygenic selection and evidence of environmental adaptation in US beef cattle. PLOS Genetics. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1009652.
'Eye of Sauron' volcano and other deep-sea structures discovered in underwater 'Mordor' – Livescience.com
Researchers exploring the Indian Ocean have discovered the remains of a collapsed underwater volcano with an uncanny resemblance to the all-seeing “Eye of Sauron” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings,” as well as two other seafloor structures named after places in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The eye is actually an oval-shaped depression measuring 3.9 miles (6.2 kilometers) long by 3 miles (4.8 km) wide. Called a caldera, this giant divot is left over from the ancient collapse of a deep-sea volcano. The caldera is surrounded by a 984-foot-tall (300 meters) rim, giving the impression of eyelids, and an equally tall cone-shaped peak at the center, which looks like a pupil, according to The Conversation. The unusual structure is located 174 miles (280 km) southeast of Christmas Island ― an Australian external territory off mainland Australia ― at a depth of 10,170 feet (3,100 m).
A team of researchers discovered the structure while onboard the ocean research vessel Investigator, owned by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), on the 12th day of an expedition to Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories. The researchers used multibeam sonar to create 3D maps of the caldera and the surrounding seafloor.
Like other calderas, this one formed when the peak of the original volcano collapsed, according to the researchers.
“The molten magma at the base of the volcano shifts upwards, leaving empty chambers [below],” chief scientist Tim O’Hara, senior curator at Museums Victoria in Australia, wrote in The Conversation. “The thin, solid crust on the surface of the dome then collapses, creating a large, crater-like structure.”
The area surrounding the volcanic crater is also home to two other noteworthy structures.
“Our volcanic ‘eye’ was not alone,” O’Hara wrote. “Further mapping to the south revealed a smaller sea mountain covered in numerous volcanic cones, and further still to the south was a larger, flat-topped seamount.”
Continuing the connection to Tolkien’s fantasy epic, the researchers named the cone-covered mountain Barad-dûr, after Sauron’s main stronghold, and the seamount Ered Lithui, after the Ash Mountains, both of which are found alongside the Eye of Sauron in the evil realm of Mordor.
The Ered Lithui seamount is part of a cluster of seamounts thought to date back about 100 million years, O’Hara wrote. The Ered Lithui seamount was once above the water’s surface, giving it its flat top, and it has gradually sunk to around 1.6 miles (2.6 km) below sea level.
Over millions of years, sand and sinking detritus — particulate matter, including plankton, excrement and other organic matter — have coated the seamount in a thick layer of sediment around 328 feet (100 m) deep. However, the caldera remains relatively uncovered, suggesting it may be significantly younger, O’Hara said.
“This sedimentation rate should have smothered and partially hidden the caldera,” O’Hara wrote. It also “looks surprisingly intact for a structure that should be 100 million years old.”
This freshness suggests that the volcano was created, and subsequently collapsed, after the seamount began sinking into the ocean.
“It is possible that volcanoes have continued to sprout long after the original foundation,” O’Hara wrote. “Our restless Earth is never still.”
Originally published on Live Science.
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