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Image: Maat Mons, a large volcano on Venus, can be seen in this simulated color radar image from 1991 from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft mission.
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Photo credit: NASA / JPL

ITHACA, NY – Traces of gas phosphine indicate volcanic activity on Venus, according to new research from Cornell University.

Last fall, scientists revealed that traces of phosphine were found in the planet’s upper atmosphere. That discovery promised the slim possibility that phosphine would serve as a biological signature for the hot, poisonous planet.

Now Cornell scientists say the chemical fingerprint supports another and important scientific find: a geological signature that shows evidence of explosive volcanoes on the mysterious planet.

“The phosphine tells us nothing about the biology of Venus,” said Jonathan Lunine, professor of physical sciences and chairman of the astronomy department at Cornell. “It tells us something about geology. Science points to a planet that has active explosive volcanism now or in the recent past.”

Lunine and Ngoc Truong, a PhD student in geology, authored the study, Volcanically Extruded Phosphides as an Abiotic Source of Venusian Phosphine, published July 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Truong and Lunine argue that volcanism is the means for phosphine to enter Venus’ upper atmosphere, after observing the ground-based James Clerk Maxwell telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA ) in northern Chile.

When Venus contains phosphide – a form of phosphorus found in the planet’s deep mantle – and when it is brought to the surface in an explosive, volcanic manner and then injected into the atmosphere, these phosphides react with the sulfuric acid in Venus’ atmosphere to form phosphine said Truong.

Lunine said her phosphine model “suggests the occurrence of explosive volcanism” while “radar images from the Magellan spacecraft in the 1990s show that some geological features may support this”.

In 1978, scientists on NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter mission discovered variations of sulfur dioxide in Venus’ upper atmosphere, suggesting the prospect of explosive volcanism, Truong said, similar to the extent of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption on Earth in 1883 in Indonesia.

But, said Truong, “the confirmation of the explosive volcanism on Venus by the gas phosphine was completely unexpected.”


The research was funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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