Planetary Radio • Aug 17, 2022
A Venus Phosphine Scoop! The Return of Jane Greaves
On This Episode
Astronomer and professor, Cardiff University
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Astronomer Jane Greaves and her worldwide team have had quite a ride. It has been two years since the Cardiff University professor announced evidence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Many scientists were and still are skeptical, but Jane is back with more data, including some that she shares with us first. She and Mat talk about what this could mean. Phosphine-belching Venusian penguins are very unlikely, but we want your artists’ concepts of them! That’s in addition to yet another space trivia contest from Bruce Betts.
- Life on Venus? New Updates on the Search
- The Quest for Life on Venus
- Planetary Radio: Venus Update
- Penguins significantly increased phosphine formation and phosphorus contribution in maritime Antarctic soils
- The Downlink
- Subscribe to the monthly Planetary Radio newsletter
This Week’s Question:
What Planetary Society spaceflight project had a penguin as part of its logo? Hint: It was something designed to fly in space but was not itself a spacecraft.
And a bonus challenge! Jane Greaves and Mat invite your artists’ concepts of what flying, phosphine-belching Venusian penguins might look like. Send your renderings to [email protected] by 8am Pacific on Wednesday, August 24 for the chance to win a Planetary Society r-r-r-rubber asteroid.
This Week’s Prize:
A copy of “The Spacefarer's Handbook: Science and Life Beyond Earth” by Bergita and Urs Ganse.
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, August 24 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
What spacecraft first lifted off the surface of a world beyond Earth?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the August 3, 2022 space trivia contest:
What Solar System moon has the highest surface gravity?
At 0.183 g, Io has the highest surface gravity of any Solar System moon.
Mat Kaplan: A Venusian phosphine scoop this week on Planetary Radio.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Cardiff University astronomer Jane Greaves has returned with more evidence for phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Earth's broiling sister planet. Jane and I will talk about the implications, including speculative models of how living organisms could be responsible. It's a delightful conversation with a delightful guest, and it ends with a challenge for the more artistically gifted among you.
Mat Kaplan: Equally delightful, Bruce Betts will pick up with a look at the current night sky, a random space fact, and a new space trivia contest, all as part of this week's What's Up.
Mat Kaplan: Have you heard last week's stinky comet feature? My conversation with three University of Burn scientists gets top billing in the August 12 edition of the Down Link, The Planetary Society's free weekly newsletter. There's more comet commotion in this issue, including a pretty image of Swift-Tuttle, the body that is responsible for the just finished Perseid meteor shower.
Mat Kaplan: The Artemis 1 mission is still headed toward its first launch opportunity on August 29th. I'll be there with my society colleagues, chief advocate Casey Dreier, and editorial director Rae Paoletta. We're hoping to meet with other society members, and all of us are hoping to see that giant space launch system rocket lift off for the first time.
Mat Kaplan: Even as we look forward to Artemis 1, NASA is preparing to send four astronauts in a similar moon orbiting trip. Artemis 2 might happen as soon as 2024. You can always find more at planetary.org/downlink.
Mat Kaplan: The Venusian phosphine saga has a new chapter. It comes to us once again from Professor Jane Greaves, leader of an international interdisciplinary team of scientists. We first reported on their findings back in October of 2020. That announcement generated a lot of media interest and a lot of skepticism from other researchers. As you'll hear in this new conversation, Jane and her team have never stopped gathering data, and this data still points to the presence of phosphine gas. So, if it's really there, where is it coming from? Volcanoes on the surface? Living microbes that have adapted to a difficult life in the clouds? Or some other yet to be discovered mechanism? These are some of the topics I covered with Jane a few days ago.
Mat Kaplan: Jane, welcome back to Planetary Radio. Congratulations on delivering the Fred Kavli lecture at the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. We're going to link to the video of your presentation that I highly recommend our listeners take a look at. It is a wonderful background, really, about all of Venus exploration, not just the work that you've been doing, but it is certainly that as well. That's what we'll talk about today. Thanks for coming back to the show.
Jane Greaves: Thanks very much for having me on the show again.
Mat Kaplan: It has been quite a ride, hasn't it?
Jane Greaves: It certainly has. It's hard to believe that we published our results and conveyed them to everybody public in the world, nearly two years ago now. It was September, 2020,
Mat Kaplan: We covered that media briefing, that press conference. Then you were on the show soon after, and then you came back on the show to talk about the commotion that had been caused. I was tempted to call this episode The Phosphine Strikes Back, or Revenge of the Phosphine. But that implies we media people were always looking for controversy and conflict, of course. The opposition that was generated by legitimate scientists, wasn't that exactly the way science is supposed to work?
Jane Greaves: It was mostly, yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Mostly.
Jane Greaves: We put everything out there very publicly. So, all our data were public and all our things on the computer that we process the data. So, all our results are reproducible, which nobody's really queried that those procedures we used didn't work. But, yeah, it is you put it out there and people go, "That's not my favorite technique." So, we've been wrestling with that.
Jane Greaves: I think the thing that was a bit of a downer was people that didn't really get in touch with us and say, "Let's share expertise," which was what we really wanted. People putting out their things going, "I can't find it." And then we'd be looking through what they'd done and going like, "You haven't showed us the details, but we think you've done the following." So it's been a little bit rough on the two of us who are doing the data processing. But yeah, it is very much the way science proceeds.
Mat Kaplan: I'm sorry to hear about that part of it. Some of us tend to forget that scientists are merely human and do things that other humans do periodically. But now, it's the work that you detailed in the Kavli lecture, you have new data, which we're going to get to in a moment. But I want to go back even further because I don't think I've asked you this before. What first got you thinking, "Hmm. I wonder if there could be phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere, and how would we go about finding it?" What got that underway?
Jane Greaves: Oh, it's kind of funny because I was asked to do a very early specification for what a far infrared space telescope might in the future be able to do for solar system science. This was for a UK meeting, and that's very niche for the UK. So they asked me and I didn't know a huge lot about it. Of course, this will be very exciting, particularly in the US because NASA has plans for a far infrared space telescope. So I really hope we get to do these things. I was looking around thinking, "What things have been done before for the solar system in the far infrared?" Which is a heritage of things like the infrared space observatory that the European Space Agency built a couple of decades ago. So. I looked through all this because particularly the brief was to look at things you could do at Spectra for detecting molecules.
Jane Greaves: I found phosphine is a molecule they've studied a lot. Then I had to look it up because I was like never heard of it. Okay. It's PH3. That sounds quite a simple molecule. Then I did a little bit more looking it up. Most of the stuff that came up was about how it's poisonous, but also how it's a gas that you find on Earth where you've got these bacteria in extreme situations and they don't use oxygen. So, they get their energy in other ways. For reasons we don't really understand, they pump out some phosphine gas.
Jane Greaves: In the back of my mind, I was solar system, what's been done in the solar system, where haven't we been so much. I was thinking, "Oh, yeah, there's is old idea that Carl Sagan and some other people came up with that there could be life floating in the clouds of Venus where there's no oxygen," and all these things fell into place. I was like, "Well, nobody's stopping us doing a search for phosphine on Venus." It's never been done. I thought, "Oh, well, we'll have to wait 20 years for the space telescope or 30 years, and I'll be super retired." And then I realized that you could actually do some of this with the radio telescopes we already have. There's one of these absorption wavelengths of phosphine that you can do with radio telescopes from facilities we already have on the ground. So, that's what kicked it off.
Mat Kaplan: What a brilliant scientific inference or progression of thought there. That's exactly what I wanted to hear about. That first work, done with data that you got from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the ALMA array, which I never fail to tell people that I got to visit once, there out in the Atacama Desert in Chile. That's what gave you this first tantalizing data, but now a second round of observations from the JCMT, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, what's different about this second set of data from that instrument?
Jane Greaves: Well, the JCMT have been great to us. Not only did they give us a bit of time in the first place, which other telescopes were like, "Please don't waste our time with this idea," but they very generously gave us a few hours to do it and gathered the data. But then they went back without us even asking, in fact. So this was two years ago now, two summers ago. They had a new instrument on the telescope, which wasn't even being used by like regular astronomers, but they did a little bit of time because Venus had swung back again and took us a few more spectra. Then we had all the excitement with the paper coming out and talking to people and great interactions with the public. Then the start of people going, like, "No, you must be wrong," in the science community. I didn't really get to look at the new JCMT data for like almost a year, I think.
Jane Greaves: Then I looked at it. We do see the phosphine absorption again, and it's pretty similar. So, we have 2017 and 2020 data with the same telescope, but with different instruments and different kinds of tackling the processing issues that come in there and we got the same results. So, I'm very happy about that.
Mat Kaplan: The article by my colleague, Jason Davis, who I think you spoke to a while back, we're going to link to his article as well. It includes this wonderful graphic of three different plots, all of which show this big dip and are from three different, well, two different telescopes, ALMA and the JCMT. But on the JCMT now, two completely different instruments. It looks like you have reason to have a bit more confidence here.
Jane Greaves: I think we do. In fact, I haven't told anyone yet this because I was doing it this morning before speaking to you. But we have a third set of data from the JCMT-
Mat Kaplan: Wow!
Jane Greaves: ... because on the back of what we had already, they're allowing us to do what's called a legacy survey where we can use far, far more telescope time and collect a whole slew of data. My friend, Dr. Dave Clements at Imperial College here in the UK is leading that. But the whole pile of data from February landed on my computer, which is a very slow computer. I finally teased out the third detection of phosphine from the JCMT just this morning. In fact, your listeners are the first to know that because I haven't had time to email Dave yet.
Mat Kaplan: That is fantastic. I'm sorry that it'll be a few days before this show goes out, but thank you for that scoop. I read that there was also some data, maybe not as significant, from SOFIA, that big infrared telescope built into a Boeing 747. How would you characterize that data?
Jane Greaves: Yeah. I'm still trying to get hold of some of the people at the observatory to discuss that because that wasn't data that was taking for us. But of course, as most big modern telescopes do, the data remain public so everybody can have a go at it. I'm not so familiar with SOFIA, but the excitement was they took this data, which looks at a different absorption line of phosphine. So, it's about one quarter the wavelength for the original one. And that is the true far infrared and that's where you need ideally a space telescope, but a plane flying in the stratosphere, SOFIA, can get nearly as good.
Jane Greaves: I've run the kinds of processing we've developed for the JCMT, and it looks like there is a detection of this other absorption line of phosphine as well, which would be amazing. Either I've completely misunderstood some things that the data tells you in the metadata and looked at completely the wrong place or something, but I think that's also starting to look solid. So I'm excited to talk to the people who took that data and the observatory staff about that. It's unfortunate that I believe SOFIA is just flying back to home base at the moment, having done its last astronomical flight, but I hope they'll sort out maybe the funding situation and it'll be ready to fly again maybe in a few years. That would be awesome.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. It's not looking good right now. I have a special place in my heart for SOFIA as well. I went on one of those observation flights, and right now, as far as we know, it's still going to make its last fight by September 30th. But with results like this, maybe people will start to reconsider.
Jane Greaves: I hope so. Because it does such unique science. Particularly in the US and I think we in Europe are hoping to join that effort. I think it's really like there'll be a new, amazing far infrared space telescope. Picking up where JWST stops at wavelengths of about 30 microns, something to go from there into the really obscure parts of the infrared that we have very little information about, that would be awesome.
Mat Kaplan: What is it about this search for phosphine, on that nearby world and its atmosphere, what makes it so incredibly difficult, to sort through this and find the indications that the data that you're looking for?
Jane Greaves: Well, the actual absorption feature we're looking for is about 10 times fainter than what's been done fairly easily before. So telescopes like the JCMT haven't changed a great deal over the last two or three decades, even. We're just trying to push the techniques to go deeper. We come into all sorts of nasty things, which is what I'm scratching my head over at the moment.
Jane Greaves: Venus is incredibly bright as a radio object. So, some of that light comes into the telescoping enclosure and we think just bounces around. So it hits the floor and hit the wall and the back of the telescope and pings around and reenters the optical path and then joins in the receiver, going, "I'm a bit late to the party, but here I am." Unfortunately, the mathematical techniques that are used to produce the spectrum, they scramble this and tell you there's some other signal at another wavelength in there and it makes the spectrum undulate up and down. It's just like this huge hideous complicated wave pattern.
Jane Greaves: So, I've been sitting, looking at the new JCMT data we got just this February, going, like, that's 50 waves of all of different sizes going past. I'm not the world's best surfer, but this kind of thing, you'd be like, yeah, it's all going past and in the middle there is the tiny thing I'm trying to find. It's a neat mathematical challenge. I wish it wasn't quite so difficult, but that's the problem. So we are looking for like, oh, it's like one little sharp fin sticking up over a whole load of bubbly waves.
Mat Kaplan: What is the additional challenge caused by the Doppler effect? I mean, the difference between our world and the one you're trying to observe.
Jane Greaves: Yeah. I suppose astronomers think if Venus is moving away from us at, what is it? It's about 10 kilometers per second. That's not very fast. But actually that is like really, really fast, that's per second, miles per second or kilometers per second, that's really fast. We're not talking per hour. This means that the little spectrum of the phosphine we're looking for is slightly more red shifting over time. At the moment, we're using that as a neat feature because the things that are happening in the telescope frame are just sitting there at the same wavelength all the time. So, we can use this changing velocity to help dig out the phosphine signal. This is really the first time we've had a chance to do this. We got 20 days of data in February this year, which is like completely overwhelming, but Venus shifted by quite a bit in that time. So, we can look for it as like a perturbation of what's happening with the regular instrument patterns. So, I think this is going to help. It's just more data than I've ever had to look at before.
Mat Kaplan: That's very interesting. Here I was thinking that the Doppler only caused you more headaches, but it actually might help you sort through the data. You also addressed in your lecture the various arguments for and against how phosphine might be getting generated, volcanoes. I don't think it's heavy industry on the surface, and of course, this possibility of life floating around up there. That reference that you made, maybe regret now, to you hope it's flying penguins because I actually looked at that paper by completely unrelated researchers about phosphine created in the guts of Antarctic penguins. I'm guessing maybe I didn't get far enough into the paper by more anaerobic bacteria that are turning out those phosphate [inaudible 00:16:43]
Jane Greaves: I think that's true. I tried to read that penguin paper, too. There's a whole branch of penguinology I was not familiar with as an astronomer. But yeah, we mentioned this because we all were kind of, oh, the cute penguins in the pictures. They're Gentoo penguins, I think, which are exceptionally cute. I think we must have mentioned this one too many times because people got confused by this idea. Like, how do the penguins stay up into clouds of Venus and we didn't mean literal penguins.
Mat Kaplan: Although, as I'd put in some email to you, let's hope that the DAVINCI plus probe, when it descends, doesn't beam any flying penguins as it descends. I'll come back to those missions that we're all looking forward to.
Mat Kaplan: As you talked about these various possible sources, I'll ask you to first maybe give the argument, which you give into the lecture, the arguments against this coming from a biological source, from something living in that high atmosphere in those clouds. I guess there are plausible answers, right?
Jane Greaves: Yeah. This is nice because there's a lot of challenges you can put to sort of chemists and people like that. The limit is what we know so little about Venus. But we think that volcanic plumes on Earth, you can get some phosphine gas because it's materials being shot out suddenly through the volcano, and then they react with water and you can get phosphine that way. I think that's maybe not been experimentally proved even on Earth because who wants to fly through that, or maybe even send a drone through that. So there've been some serious calculations for Venus where the volcanoes may be very energetic and large, though we haven't imaged too much about them, but they're thought to be there on the surface. So possibly, if some phosphine-bearing rocks from under the surface got literally hurled 40 miles into the atmosphere and then reacted, you could get some phosphine gas.
Jane Greaves: Latest thinking, at least on our team, is this probably doesn't work because there's a lot of the right kind of rock deep in the mantle of the Earth, but it kind of comes up slowly. It doesn't like come out from a gun from many miles down, and it alters on the way because of temperature and pressure and things. So, it looks like there isn't enough of one told or phosphides by any calculations by orders a magnitude to make this idea work. But I just saw the authors of that have had a bit of a comeback going Venus not quite like Earth and maybe these phosphides could come up. But the fundamental limit appears to be there isn't the water that would be in and around the volcanic plumes on Earth because Venus is pretty dry because it's been baked so hot. So it seems like if you talk to geologists, this probably doesn't work.
Jane Greaves: That brings us back to the original idea of going, like PH3's such a simple molecule, but there isn't all this free hydrogen in the atmosphere of Venus. So, it takes some quite exotic out of equilibrium process to collect all this hydrogen. And that's where the life idea originally came in.
Mat Kaplan: Now, I think you may have reached, it's one of my favorite slides in your lecture presentation. It's the one that was titled microhabitats. And there's a question mark on the end of that. You know the one I'm talking about. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Jane Greaves: Yeah. I hope I'm picturing the same slide as you. But the idea is that, and this was my colleagues, Sarah Seger, MIT, leading this particularly, that the droplets in the clouds of Venus, which we think are there, could be an actual habitat. These things might be only a few millionths of a meter across, really, really tiny things, but like a tiny drop where you could fit in a few microbes because they're a bit smaller than that. In that case, they could make a protective environment for themselves. So maybe these droplets won't all be the same. Some could have more water in them. They could reduce the sulfuric acid in the droplets with some biological action and preserve themselves. Then their little bubble bursts or they fall or something, they could maybe go into some kind of spore stage and then get carried around by winds and turbulence and end up in a different droplet. Sarah's team have worked out a whole life cycle there, which is all put together on the basis of sensible ideas. But what we'd really need is some probe to go there and see if those conditions actually work.
Mat Kaplan: Now, you've gone exactly where I was hoping to go next. It does make me also think that we're going to need to get Sarah back on our show before too long to talk a little bit more in depth about this work that is underway on these micro habitats. I think you've answered the question, but I'll ask it anyway. How important is it that we go to Venus, physically go there and sniff this atmosphere directly?
Jane Greaves: It's amazing all the basic information we don't have. We've decided phosphorus is important, and phosphorus as a chemical element is really important for life, and you and me and everyone. So it's in our DNA molecules, wouldn't work without that, for example. We have no measure of any the amount of phosphorus on the surface of Venus. We have one measure in the atmosphere essentially, actually two measures, now. Two different spacecraft from the 1970s. We just don't have the wealth of information you could get with modern spacecraft. So ideally, I'd want to send a flotilla and observe the heck out of everything. But I think the race is on to go and look at some of these new questions that have come up with like what is really in the clouds? Are they completely dry? Even things like how windy is it? How stable could anything be? We know so little.
Jane Greaves: So hopefully a slew of instruments is going, and several space agencies now have declared an interest. So, it's great to have new players in the game as well, all with different ideas of what instrument you could send, ranging from something like the quickest shot you could do the next time Venus comes around maybe one tiny instrument, a sort of palm-size instrument just to do one thing related to life in the clouds. That would be amazing. Up to the biggest space agencies like NASA and ISA who'd pack probably a dozen instruments to tell you all kinds of other things, like we don't know if there's lightning in the clouds of Venus, for sure, as an example. Really hard to observe from the Earth. So some kind of camera and radio sensor could answer all these questions. At the moment, we're literally trying to find archives of 1970s data and figure out what even the format was of this punch card or something.
Mat Kaplan: Wow. We have a little experience with this at The Planetary Society. The Pioneer anomaly. Pioneers 10 at 11, and trying to read that now ancient data in terms of scientific advancement. Absolutely fascinating. I wish you luck with that.
Mat Kaplan: Now, as you know, we are going from famine to feast, you might say, with missions to Venus. I'll go back to my colleague Jason Davis's article, which again we'll link to from this week's show page at planetary.org/radio, where he lists all of these. Of course, there's DAVINCI and VERITAS from NASA. But I mean India, the United Arab Emirates, the European Space Agency a little bit later. I am especially intrigued by what may be the first ever privately funded probe that could leave as soon as next year for Venus from Rocket Lab, that amazing little company based in, well, here in California, but also in New Zealand. They want to send a probe. I think they've said that they specifically want to look for phosphine. Is that your understanding?
Jane Greaves: Yeah. They're really excited about Venus. Certainly, the founder of the company is really enthused, and they've had a lot of successes recently.
Mat Kaplan: They sure have. Yeah.
Jane Greaves: So they launched this whole satellite into orbit around the moon, which is going to help with NASA missions to the moon. They're hoping to go into planetary as soon as possible, as you mentioned, and get to Venus. Not necessarily phosphine, but something even more directly life related might go as the instrument package on their spacecraft. Sarah, again, has been working a lot with the breakthrough project people to say what would get you the most bang for the buck in one of these sort of palm-sized instruments you could drop through the clouds.
Jane Greaves: I have great trouble saying this, but I think what it says in their report is an auto fluorescing nephelometer-
Mat Kaplan: Well done.
Jane Greaves: ... which looks for the fluorescence of molecules that you get the molecules that are associated with life. So, they fluoresce in some way that non-biological molecules don't. So, that's the idea. Take what is like a small commercial piece of kit and drop it through the clouds of Venus, and then you have couple of minutes maybe to get signals out before it's disappeared forever. This is a super exciting idea, and I think they're aiming for the next close swing by Venus or whenever it's lined up the best for a connecting orbit from Earth. Yeah. Can't wait to see that happen.
Mat Kaplan: Are you or Sarah or other members of your team, are you talking to members? Are you talking to the teams for these other spacecraft, like the two NASA probes that are expected to launch in 2028?
Jane Greaves: Yeah, very much. They're calling on different people of our team, depending on expertise, to understand chemistry or modeling atmospheres in computers or whatever. The DAVINCI people have been particularly generous and just held a round table meeting inviting people to put forward ideas because they have... Their instrument package is pretty much the design is finished, but they found a way to slot in a fourth bit of wavelength to one of the instruments, which is a laser spectrometer. So they were saying, like, get your bids in for what you'd like it to be. We went in as both team phosphine and team ammonia, both of which would be great biomarkers. I was sneakily putting myself on both teams.
Jane Greaves: And then there's some other really interesting molecules up for consideration as well that might tell us a whole lot about the volcanoes or looking for rare isotopes that would tell us more about the molecules and atoms that are left in the atmosphere, give us a real clue to the past of Venus because the lighter ones fly away in this event that's thought to have got rid of the oceans and the water that may have been there. So you can calculate how much atmosphere was lost from these heavier and lighter isotopes, as I understand it. So, we could get some idea if Venus had oceans.
Jane Greaves: This is all thrilling science. So, in a way, it doesn't matter which instrument they managed to put on as fourth channel or even if they can't do it. They already have super exciting plans. But yeah, team phosphine and team ammonia, which Dave is telling me is now called team phosmmonia or something like that. We're hoping they might pick one of our molecules.
Mat Kaplan: Go team phosmmonia, I suppose. So much to look forward to. Other than talking to these groups that are going to be launching these spacecraft before too long, what's next? I mean, what are you and your team currently working on in terms of what can be done from down here on Earth?
Jane Greaves: Well, we're still thinking radio astronomy, and this is something we have the data in hand, but we're not quite finished yet. So, we use the enormous Green Bank telescope in West Virginia. It's this 100 meter across radio telescope, which has an amazing facility and did proper radio astronomy, none of these like millimeter size waves at JCMT and ALMA did, but proper centimeter size jobs, proper radio astronomy.
Mat Kaplan: No comment for me because I'm of course a big fan of ALMA, but yes. Okay. I get it.
Jane Greaves: I'm a big fan of all of this. But they very kindly gave us a couple of hours to look for ammonia. So, we're hoping something will either come out of that data or having done this crazy thing with this giant telescope that they've never done before, that we would get another shot to look for it. So, ammonia would absorb at this wavelength near one centimeter if it's in the cloud. We're really hoping to get a handle on that. Turns out I couldn't find any radio spectrum of Venus ever taken in this wave band-
Mat Kaplan: Really?
Jane Greaves: ... by any telescope ever since the 1960s. So at least we have the first radio spectrum, whatever it's telling us.
Mat Kaplan: This is a shot in the dark, but I know that you mentioned the Breakthrough folks, Breakthrough Institute, or foundation, and they, I know, have time on the Green Bank telescope because they put some money into saving that facility. Is that at all related to the work you're doing? The observation time you have there? Or is this just the Green Bank NRAO people saying, "Yes, this looks like a great project."
Jane Greaves: Yeah. I think they're just great people out there and they're open to new ideas. So, I believe the SETI instrument can piggyback on whatever regular observations are going on, or perhaps they can make use of time that other people can't for very narrow band type signals. Like, when you're tuning your car radio to try and find some really narrow signal, I believe that's what the SETI people are doing looking at nearby stars. Maybe they can do that while nearby stars go past in the course of other people's projects. So, not directly related, but I am very excited about what they're doing as well. Yes.
Mat Kaplan: I loved your closing slide, and your Kavli lecture presentation had snapshots of your team. It looks like a fun, diverse group.
Jane Greaves: Yeah. They've been great people to work with. Still, I've never met quite a lot of them face to face. We've had these amazing team Zooms just to say hello, where somebody's got up at 3:00 in the morning in Japan, is giving us some very tired wave, or it's breakfast time in Hawaii or something that... Could not have done it without them. So, I try and put up those shots whenever I can. In some ways, the most important person on the team was Elisa Lee, who operated the telescope for us because we didn't go out to Hawaii for the original few hours. She was operating the JCMT. These are people in the community that I've never met. But we're all doing science together. Elisa was African American, I believe. She was doing this while doing her student studies, studying science, just kind of a job to make some money, was what I was told. So, it's great. The diversity and the participation that we've had with these people, I wouldn't have expected to work with on a more regular project,
Mat Kaplan: Just seemed like another nice benefit of this work that is underway that has brought this group together. I want to propose that whatever we learn about the Venusian atmosphere, even if we learn that there is some more plausible source of this phosphine than life or that it's not there at all, that you have played a big role in reigniting interest in this world by scientists, by space agencies, and mere fans like me. So thank you for that.
Jane Greaves: Yeah. I find this a bit astonishing as I'm just sitting here in my flat trying to survive the last of the pandemic, looking out the window at my apartment. It seems odd that I've like poked NASA along a bit along with the team. There would've been no publications without the important things that the team did. There would've been no chemistry, no biology, no nothing without them. So, I should say the 19 of us on the team were the ones who poked NASA rather unexpectedly, and the other space agencies. So, I hope not too many people are annoyed that the missions got funded at the expense of something else. But yeah, I think it's what we need to do as a human species is keep taking a look at what's around the...
Mat Kaplan: Keep poking away, Jane. Wouldn't it be just delicious if we discovered life above Venus before we found evidence of life or even past life on Mars? That would be quite something.
Jane Greaves: That would be quite crazy. I think what hit me in the face was like, I'm starting to think maybe there's life in all these environments because life is so tough, that if we turn around a few years and we're like, "Well, obviously on Venus and on Mars and inside Europa and Enceladus, why wouldn't there be?" It might be a situation like now we're going like, "Well, why wouldn't there be planets everywhere?" Which seems so crazy if you look back now at a 30-year-old, maybe a child's textbook going, like, "We will never know if there are planets around other stars."
Mat Kaplan: I had that book.
Jane Greaves: [inaudible 00:33:38] under 30 now. They're like, "How did they write that? That's so dumb." So yeah, maybe the next textbooks will be going, "How did they write we will never know if there's life on other planets?"
Mat Kaplan: I want to be around when the need to revise those current textbooks comes around. I got just one other question for you. It's another shot in the dark. Have you received any drawings of those phosphine belching penguins that live so happily in the high, cool Venusian clouds?
Jane Greaves: No, sadly I haven't. No. We did get a very odd message saying it had been a question in a Japanese quiz show. So they phoned up rather confused to go is the correct answer yes penguins or no penguins. And all my team were like, "What? Can you explain a bit?"
Mat Kaplan: We have a very talented [inaudible 00:34:27]
Jane Greaves: But yeah, the drawings. We need the drawings of how the penguins fly and so on.
Mat Kaplan: All right. We're calling on you listeners. We have a very talented group of listeners out there, and I am challenging anybody out there, you can send to me [email protected] your rendering of penguinacious life in the clouds of Venus, and I will pass them on to Jane and her team. Deal?
Jane Greaves: Oh, please do.
Mat Kaplan: Okay. Jane, it is always a delight. Thank you for joining us again and for this great work. I look forward to talking again, or whoever is in this seat, I know is going to want to talk to you again.
Jane Greaves: Thank you so much.
Mat Kaplan: That's Cardiff University professor and astronomer Jane Greaves. I'll be back with Bruce in a minute with more to say about that Venusian penguin art invitation.
George Takei: Hello, I'm George Takei. As you know, I'm very proud of my association with Star Trek. Star Trek was a show that looked to the future with optimism, boldly going where no one had gone before. I want you to know about a very special organization called The Planetary Society. They are working to make the future that Star Trek represents a reality. When you become a member of The Planetary Society, you join their mission to increase discoveries in our solar system, to elevate the search for life outside our planet, and decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid. Co-founded by Carl Sagan and led today by CEO Bill Nye, The Planetary Society exists for those who believe in space exploration to take action together. So join The Planetary Society and boldly go together to build our future.
Mat Kaplan: Hey, it's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. So, here's the chief scientist. Once again, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, that is, please help me welcome, Dr. Bruce Betts.
Bruce Betts: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here again, Matt.
Mat Kaplan: It's hood to have you back.
Bruce Betts: It's been a long time since we've talked.
Mat Kaplan: The secret word of the day is... Can you guess?
Bruce Betts: Penguin?
Mat Kaplan: Yes. He wins the Chevy Nova.
Bruce Betts: Nova.
Mat Kaplan: Well, anyway, there are more penguin goodnesses ahead. But first, tell us what's up in the night sky. Is there a penguin constellation?
Bruce Betts: In the penguin culture of Antarctica there is. Interestingly, the penguins of... Nevermind. Focus, focus, focus. So focusing, there are no penguins in the sky because they can't fly, but there are planets spread all across the night. As long as it's not cloudy, you should be able to see a bright planet in the evening. We've got Saturn just past opposition. It's rising still right around sunset in the east, setting around sunrise in the west, Jupiter rising a couple hours later in the early evening, not surprisingly due to the rotation of the Earth. This time they're coming up in the east. You got Mars coming up around midnight, middle of the night and looking reddish, and super bright Venus still hanging out low, but hanging out in the pre-dawn east. So it's a festival.
Bruce Betts: Mars will be joined by the moon on the 19th. That's the night of the 18th going into the 19th. Can also, with or without the moon, see the Pleiades star cluster near Mars. The moon is in between them in the morning of the 19th. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. One more thing, the moon is near Venus, low down in the pre-dawn east on the 25th.
Mat Kaplan: That's a nice bunch of combos. I was able to see Saturn last night, but it was the first clear night we'd had in ages. So I missed the Perseids, if I'd been able to see them from this urban skyscape in the first place.
Bruce Betts: I saw a pre-dawn Perseid.
Mat Kaplan: Ooh. [inaudible 00:38:43]
Bruce Betts: Rare for me since I used to stay up all night with friends and watch them. But the dogs nicely woke me up and we were chasing some kind of animal out there around 3:30 in the morning and I got a meteor in.
Mat Kaplan: That's great.
Bruce Betts: Full side story. All right, let's go onto this week in space history. It was Voyager II. Voyager II launched in 1977. Voyager II, still going way out there. It's impressive.
Mat Kaplan: And we're going to celebrate the 45th anniversary of both launches in just a couple of weeks here. So, we'll go back out to JPL. We're going to talk to Ann Druyan as well, one of the people behind the Voyager Golden Record, along with her soon after it was created husband, Carl Sagan.
Bruce Betts: Wait. After he was created or...
Mat Kaplan: If you want to create a Carl Sagan from scratch, first you have to create the universe.
Bruce Betts: Wow. That was trippy, man, kind of meta the way you've built in his lessons about the universe into... Okay. So onto random space fact... Dang it. I'm really off my game today. Random space fact!
Mat Kaplan: Oh, I like that.
Bruce Betts: This is something highly technical that you may not have thought of, or maybe you have. An anagram for astronomers is moon starers. That's a very hard word for me to say. But someone who stares at the moon. Anagram.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Bruce Betts: Also, kind of backwards, it's also anagram for no more stars.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, no. Oh, well, after the heat death of the universe, I imagine.
Bruce Betts: Oh, dude, you're bringing me down again.
Mat Kaplan: I'm sorry. Bring us back up again.
Bruce Betts: Let's move on to the trivia contest. What solar system moon has the highest surface gravity? Something that I find not intuitive because it depends on a couple of parameters. How'd we do, Mat?
Mat Kaplan: We got quite a few nice responses to this one. Here is the opening salvo from our poet laureate, Dave Fairchild in Kansas. "Io is a spouting moon, volcanic, we can tell, a mass of vivid colors, a sulfuric burning hell. It's made of rock and silica, so it's plain to see why Io ranks the highest with its surface gravity."
Bruce Betts: Nice.
Mat Kaplan: Nice little diddy.
Bruce Betts: Indeed. It is Io, moon of Jupiter, with a surface gravity of 0.183 G of the surface gravity on Earth.
Mat Kaplan: Or as David Churn in Missouri called it, "That smokey little trickster." [inaudible 00:41:23]
Bruce Betts: That is totally in the planetary science community, they use that term because they couldn't decide... It's like Io, Eo. How about smokey little trickster? Everyone agrees.
Mat Kaplan: According to Norman Kusun, though, Io was hardly a trickster. He says that, "As was Zeus' want, he had an extramarital affair with the nymph Io whom he callously turned into a cow when his wife Hera discovered the illicit dalliance." Don't have a cow, man.
Bruce Betts: No wonder she's mad and filled with volcanic fury.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. That would make me erupt. Christopher Trunk in Pennsylvania: "Io deserves more scrutiny and should be considered for a dedicated mission or redirection of the JUNO spacecraft after it finishes its primary mission." I think you got a good point there, Christopher.
Bruce Betts: Very interesting. It's very challenging, which is there actually have been proposals that have not successfully won, for Io missions. But the challenge is it's so deep inside Jupiter's nasty radiation belts caused by its spinning magnetosphere, that it's really unhealthy for spacecraft. Even the spacecraft that do see it, typically the plan is to dip in, see it, and then dip back out again.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Get the heck out. Couple of poems to close with. Roger Gown in New Hampshire: "With Bruce's instructions, I sought to compl-Io, though I feared it might make me cr-Io, but I just had to give it a tr-Io, so my answer? It's Jupiter's Io." Yeah. It's including your name that got him in there.
Bruce Betts: Yeah. That makes me happy.
Mat Kaplan: And then this kind of long one from Jean Lewin, another of our regular poets up in Washington. "Dancing on the surface here, you'd be light on your feet. Still, your poor old trotters just couldn't stand the heat. The dance floor is expansive. Watch where you place your dogs. It's covered in calderas. You'll need asbestos clogs. This place is radiating 3,600 REMS a day. It smells a bit like sulfur. It's a small price to pay. So why be such a wallflower? Io is where we'll be. Let's trip the light fantastic. Thank you, Arthur Murray."
Bruce Betts: A very positive view on Io and its environment.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Arthur Murray, no relation to the great Bruce Murray, one of your mentors.
Bruce Betts: We can neither confirm nor deny that.
Mat Kaplan: You know what? I never told you who the winner was, but I will now.
Bruce Betts: They probably want to know.
Mat Kaplan: It's Thomas Ancilieri who's been listening since at least 2016, and this is his first time as a winner there in Colorado. Congratulations, Thomas. You have won yourself a copy of that really beautiful book, it's basically an art book, Carbon: One Atom's Odyssey by John Burnett. It's still for sale all over the place. We just happen to have another copy. It does trace the sort of life span of one carbon atom as it proceeds across the universe and through various incarnations. It's just a terrific book, all with these beautiful drawings done by John. I think we're ready for another.
Bruce Betts: This one's hard. I did a quick look at looking this up. Some of you might know this. You might be able to deduce it. You might be able to guess it. The internet is vast. But with the penguin theme, I could not resist. What planetary society project... I'll give you a clue. It was a space flight project. That doesn't mean a spacecraft. It just means the project flies something in space. What TPS space flight project had a penguin as part of its logo? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Mat Kaplan: Wow. I've been around for 22 years almost, and I don't know the answer to this one. So, yeah, that's a good one. You got until Wednesday at 8:00 AM Pacific time on August 24th to get us the answer for this one. Here's the prize. It's another book that I discovered we have a spare copy of. We've given it away before, and I'm happy to award it again. The Spacefarer's Handbook: Science and Life Beyond Earth by Bergita and Urs Ganse. I hope I'm not mangling their names too badly, but that's what I do. It's really good. It's from Springer Praxis books, and it's a neat little handbook, richly illustrated. That's what'll go to the winner this time around.
Mat Kaplan: Sticking with this week's penguin theme, I just want to bring up again that little, well, it amounts to a contest, I guess, an art invitational. I want to sweeten the pot a little bit on that offer to all of you to send us your artist's concept of flying, phosphine belching penguins in the Venusian atmosphere, which almost certainly are not there. We'll award at least one Planetary Radio rubber asteroid to someone who submits the art that they have created to go with this theme. More penguins, Bruce.
Bruce Betts: Your scientific caution is truly impressive. "Almost certainly not in the Venus atmosphere"? All right. All right. Everybody go out there, look up at the night sky and think about would you rather see penguin poop from space or see penguins up close, but have to smell it? Thank you and good-bye.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. That's a tough one. I guess I would go for the former because I've been close to penguins without thick glass between us, and they're dirty little birds, I'll tell you. I don't know if that was phosphine I was smelling or not, but it really smelled bad.
Bruce Betts: I've heard it's bad.
Mat Kaplan: That's Bruce Betts. He's keeping us honest because he's the chief scientist of Planetary Society, and he joins us every week here for What's Up.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and it's made possible by its penguin-loving members. But after all, who doesn't love penguins? It's not a requirement for membership in The Planetary Society, but it doesn't hurt. Planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Ray Polletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad penguin. I mean astra.