Kirill Maslennikov: “Venus is Russian, Moon is American' — all this is just talks”

Astrophysicist from the Pulkovo Observatory: what has been discovered on Venus and the prospects for finding life on other planets

Kirill Maslennikov: “Venus is Russian, Moon is American' — all this is just talks”

Sensation in the world's media: a biomarker — phosphine — has been found on Venus. This is a substance that may indicate the presence of life in the planet's atmosphere. The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, immediately made another loud statement: “We believe that Venus is still a Russian planet.” About what exactly has been found on Venus, what it means for world science and why Rogozin's words should not be taken seriously — Realnoe Vremya spoke with famous Russian astrophysicist Kirill Maslennikov. Kirill Maslennikov — senior researcher at the Pulkovo Observatory, popularizer of science. In social networks and YouTube channels, he often introduces himself as “Astroded”.

Life in hell

Mr Maslennikov, what are the current ideas of official science about what conditions should be on the planet in order for life began on it?

There is a concept of “circumstellar habitable zone”, but it is related to the conditions for the protein life form (of which we are representatives). And this is understandable: we don't know any other life forms yet. It is well known that this requires: first, liquid water, second, the presence of oxygen is desirable, and third, appropriate temperature conditions.

This is what determines the habitable zone, which each star has its own. We are in this zone and know many other star systems that have planets in similar areas.

So does it turn out that the conditions on Venus, according to traditional ideas, are not suitable for life?

On the surface of Venus — absolutely not suitable. First, there are very high temperatures. A very dense layer of clouds (which, by the way, consist of almost 90% concentrated sulphuric acid) forms a powerful greenhouse effect there. We have it on Earth, too, as you know, but not so significant. But on Venus — it is very strong. And so, although it is quite far from the Sun, it is much hotter there than even on Mercury, which is generally close to our star. On the surface of Venus 400°C — hot, in short. The pressure is 100 atmospheres, the atmosphere there is heavy and dense, much more powerful than Earth's.

But in the atmosphere, in the upper clouds, the conditions are quite calm — the temperature is low (30°C), the pressure is comfortable. The only problem is acid. But since if we assume that there is life there, we can further speculate that it may be not protein organisms. Therefore, they may also be resistant to acid. But to what extent it is possible — the question that should be asked already biochemists.

On the surface of Venus 400°C — hot, in short. The pressure is 100 atmospheres, the atmosphere there is heavy and dense, much more powerful than Earth's

What they found and how

So what exactly has been found on Venus?

Phosphine has been found in the upper cloud cover of this planet. This is a gas that is a compound of phosphorus and hydrogen. On Earth, the main source of its formation is the process of vital activity of some anaerobic bacteria. That's why it's considered a biomarker.

Can it be formed in inanimate nature?

Yes, there may be phosphine of abiogenic origin, but it is much less than biogenic. There are also non-biological processes in which it is released, for example, phosphine is also present in the spectrum of Jupiter. The concentrations found on Venus are small. But even if we take into account all the Venusian conditions (including volcanoes on the surface), abiogenic processes are not enough to explain the appearance of phosphine in such concentrations.

By the way, this is not a guarantee that the origin is necessarily biogenic. Maybe, there are other processes that need to be looked for. So, of course, there is a certain amount of skepticism in the scientific community.

Were scientists deliberately looking for phosphine on Venus as a supposed marker of life, or did its spectrum accidentally enter the field of view of scientists?

Yes, they knew what to look for. The work was led by Jane Greaves, and the working group also included Clara Sousa-Silva from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (she has already spoken in the press about this method of searching for life on other planets). They became interested in this topic in 2019 — they started looking for phosphine for this purpose. And that's how well they found it on Venus.

Clara Sousa-Silva from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Photo:
If you can fly to Mars and back, why not fly to Venus and back? For example, a lander module can be sent there separately. I think that this is all solvable.

They have found phosphine on Venus: can we now consider that it is finally a sure chance that our neighbour in the Solar system has its own life?

What “sure” means and how many per cent it is — no one will undertake to estimate. This is a fairly strong fact that now requires further work. But if we caught this bacterium, brought it in a jar and showed it to everyone, like that flea from Leskov's book, then it would be a different matter. And it should also be written “Made on Venus” (so that no one doubts that it really came from there). Then we could tell for sure, and no one would have any doubts. Until that happens — well, we'll wait until they get them…

Why does Russia stand aside from giant telescopes and whose planet is Venus?

InSight module on Mars. Photo: NASA /
On Mars, research continues — drilling is underway, but so far, nothing has been found, as far as I know. The same bacteria could have been found a long time ago, but so far there is nothing like this

Rogozin has already stated that Venus is a Russian planet.

I didn't read this statement myself, but I heard that there is a resonance. It seems to me that if there was such a statement, it is purely political. I don't take these things seriously. “Venus is Russian, Moon is American” — all this, in my opinion, is just talks. You don't need to comment on this. A reasonable person understands that this is all just propaganda statements. Rogozin's job is to conduct propaganda. But, of course, this is not serious.

By Lyudmila Gubaeva