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12th of April 2021
Spectral signatures of phosphorous molecules
by Zapata Trujillo et al.
Scientists have long conjectured that phosphine (PH3) may indicate evidence of life if found in the atmospheres of rocky planets like the Earth, where it is produced by the biological activity of bacteria. So when an international team of scientists last year claimed to have detected phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, it raised the tantalising prospect of the first evidence of life on another planet –- albeit the primitive, single-celled variety. But not everyone was convinced, with some scientists questioning whether the phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere was really produced by biological activity, or whether phosphine was detected at all. An international team has now demonstrated how an initial detection of a potential biosignature must be followed by searches for related molecules. In a paper in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, they report the production of a database of approximate infrared spectral signatures for 958 molecular species containing phosphorous.

CASS astronomer Chenoa Tremblay, a co-author on the paper, says the team’s contribution will be beneficial as more powerful telescopes come online in the near future. “A new infrared telescope called the James Web Space Telescope is due to launch later this year and it will be far more sensitive and cover more wavelengths than its predecessors like the Herschel Space Observatory. We will need this information at a very rapid rate to identify new molecules in the data.” Although the team’s work was focused on the vibrational motions of molecules detected with telescopes sensitive to infrared light, they are currently working to extend the technique to the radio wavelengths as well. “This will be important for current and new telescopes like the upcoming Square Kilometre Array to be built in Western Australia.” (Image and text credit: UNSW/Lachlan Gilbert)

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