Surprising discovery: Scientists find oxygen in Venus’ toxic atmosphere

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

WASHINGTON — Oxygen makes up around 21% of Earth’s air, with the remaining portion of our atmosphere primarily being nitrogen. It’s a critical element for most living things, including humans.

However, Earth’s planetary neighbor Venus tells a different story. Its thick and noxious atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide — 96.5% — with smaller amounts of nitrogen and trace gases. Oxygen is almost non-existent on Venus, making it less studied compared to other planets in our solar system.

Scientists, using an instrument aboard the SOFIA airborne observatory, have managed to detect atomic oxygen in a thin layer between two other layers of Venus’ atmosphere. This is the first time oxygen has been directly observed on Venus.

The researchers noted that the atomic oxygen detected differs from the breathable molecular oxygen as it consists of a single oxygen atom instead of the two found in molecular oxygen.

The thick atmosphere on Venus traps heat, creating a runaway greenhouse effect, making it inhospitable for life as it is known on Earth.

The oxygen on Venus is produced through photochemistry due to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation breaking down atmospheric carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into oxygen atoms and other chemicals. Some of the oxygen is then transported to the night side of Venus by winds.

Strong winds, hurricane-force in some instances, and sulfuric acid clouds contribute to the complex atmosphere of Venus, with differing wind patterns at different altitudes.

The direct detection of atomic oxygen provides evidence of the action of photochemistry in Venus’ atmosphere, shedding light on the differences between Venus and Earth and the factors that influence them.

Venus, with its unique atmosphere and complex climate systems, remains a topic of interest for scientists as they seek to understand its evolution and why it is starkly different from Earth.


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