Surprising discovery in the atmosphere of Venus: German researchers find oxygen

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View of the planet Venus, which today resembles a fiery inferno, but may once have had a temperate climate. © NASA/JPL

Venus, known as “Hell”, surprises with a discovery. A turning point that could explain the differences between Earth and its sister planet.

Stuttgart – German researchers have discovered clear evidence of the presence of atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of the planet Venus. Oxygen has already been detected on the night side of the planet – now it has also been detected on the day side of Venus for the first time.

Venus has notable similarities to Earth: both are about the same age, similar size, and probably made of the same materials. However, there are also significant differences between the two planets. Earth is a planet where life thrives: oceans filled with liquid water are rich in life and living beings are everywhere, on land and in the air. The atmosphere of our blue planet is rich in oxygen, which is important when it comes to life on planets.

Venus is a sister planet of Earth, yet completely different

However, the situation on Venus is different. The near-Earth planet is surrounded by a dense layer of clouds of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and trace gases. On the planet itself there is the so-called “runaway greenhouse effect”: this means a self-reinforcing and unstoppable greenhouse effect. Furthermore, at a temperature of over 400 degrees Celsius there is a pressure of 92 bar. In short: life does not seem possible on Venus, the planet is defined as “hot hell”.

However, the study of the Earth-like planet is of great interest. After all, Earth may one day suffer a similar fate to Venus. Some scientists even suspect that there may be life in the clouds of Venus. Some time ago, phosphine, a controversial possible indication of life, was detected in the planet’s atmosphere.

The SOFIA “Flying Observatory” observed Venus closely

The German research team that detected oxygen in Venus’ atmosphere examined the planet using the SOFIA “flying observatory”. SOFIA was a joint project between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the US space organization NASA. The mission concluded in September 2022, but the data collected is still being analyzed.

The current results have been published in the specialized journal Nature published and show that there is a layer of atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Venus. The oxygen is hidden between two strong atmospheric currents: below 70 kilometers strong winds blow against the direction of Venus’ rotation, while above 120 kilometers strong winds blow in the opposite direction. Atomic oxygen lies between these two flows. It is created by UV radiation from the sun from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in Venus’ atmosphere.

Observing Venus was difficult

The measurements that led to this exciting discovery were carried out by “SOFIA” in November 2021. “They were particularly challenging because with SOFIA Venus could only be observed on three days for about 20 minutes each and was only slightly above the horizon,” recalls the first author of the study, Heinz-Wilhelm Hübers from DLR. The result is a map of the distribution of oxygen on Venus.

View of the planet Venus, which today resembles a fiery inferno, but may once have had a temperate climate.
View of the planet Venus, which today resembles a fiery inferno, but may once have had a temperate climate. © NASA/JPL

“We were able to demonstrate that oxygen forms on the dayside of Venus and that its concentration also decreases as solar radiation decreases,” explains Hübers. “On the night side, a local increase in concentration indicates an enrichment of atomic oxygen due to wind currents,” adds the researcher.

The oxygen concentration on Venus is lower than on Earth

The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere of Venus is about ten times lower than that of Earth’s atmosphere. “Measuring these clear differences compared to Earth could in the future contribute to a better understanding of why Earth and its sister planet Venus developed so differently,” explains Bernhard Schulz, involved in the SOFIA project. In the coming years, Venus will be explored closely again. NASA plans to send two space probes to the near-Earth planet. (form)

For this article written by the editorial staff, mechanical assistance was used. The article was carefully checked by editor Tanja Banner before publication.

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