During observations of the atmosphere of Venus, the onboard telescope was unable to detect signs of a compound possibly associated with biological activity.
The discovery of a potential signal indicating the presence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus caused a sensation in 2020. This is because phosphine is a possible biomarker or indicator of potential life.
SOFIA, the far-infrared telescope installed on the 747 aircraft to make observations not available from ground-based observatories, made follow-up observations of Venus in an attempt to confirm or refute the discovery of phosphine.
Related: After a tantalizing discovery on Venus, what could an astrobiology mission look like?
As a result, SOFIA failed to detect tell-tale signs of phosphine during three flights in November 2021, according to a statement from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). (will open in a new tab).
“Phosphine is a relatively simple chemical compound — it’s just a phosphorus atom with three hydrogen atoms — so you might think it’s pretty easy to make. But on Venus, it is not obvious how it could be obtained, ”said Martin Cordiner, a researcher. in Astrochemistry and Planetary Science at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
According to the USRA team, the use of SOFIA on Venus has created its own problems. The planet was visible only about half an hour after sunset, and the plane needed to be in the right place at the right time. Since Venus is inside the orbit of the Earth, the planet has phases from our point of view, like the moon, and is close to the sun in the sky.
“You don’t want the sun’s rays to accidentally fall on the sensitive instruments of your telescope,” Cordiner said. “The sun is the last thing you need in the sky when you’re making such sensitive observations.”
Assistance in the international hunt for phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus was one of SOFIA’s latest scientific efforts. Its activities ended in September 2022.
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