Phosphine on Venus – Educational Resources

The detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus is one of the most significant discoveries in astronomy this decade. It is evidence that there may be life on Venus, through proof that the phosphine is created by biological processes is yet to come.

The materials are all available on Google Drive in Google Docs, Microsoft Word and PDF formats. Note that the Google Doc files are the most up-to-date.

Teacher guides contain answers to the questions, and a few extra links.

These resources are under constant development. Please send any comments using our Contact Form, or email

Available resources

1 – Introduction

  • Student materials: Google Doc
  • Teacher Notes: Google Doc
  • Curriculum links: Topical Science, Critical Analysis

A summary of the discovery and its implications, accompanied by quotes from the authors and links for further reading. This information would be useful as context for the further activities.

Students could be asked to read the introduction and:

  • summarise the result,
  • debate the implications of the detection,
  • write a story using quotes from the authors (in the style of a press release)
  • Answer some “comprehension” questions about the discover

Younger students may benefit from the Space Scoop, which is written for younger readers.

2 – Orbit of Venus

Orbit of Venus section

  • Guideline ages: advanced 11-14, 14-16 and 16-18.
  • Curriculum links: Geometry, Trigonometry, Orbits, Graph analysis, Digital literacy (optional)

An activity involving the orbit of Venus. The first section is basic geometry of orbits, involving some simple trigonometry (or possible a ruler, a pair of compasses, and a protractor!). Knowledge of planetary orbits is not required, though students may ask questions. This section includes data about the appearance of Venus as seen from Earth (distance, angle from the Sun, phase etc.). Students are asked to interpret the data from graphs, though there are links in the teacher guide to the data itself if you would like to include some digital literacy.

Analysing Venus Observations section

  • Guideline ages: 14-16, 16-18
  • Curriculum links: Resolution, Telescope

Students use their knowledge of telescopes to calculate and comment on the resolution of the observations

3 – Atmosphere of Venus

Planetary Atmospheres & Surface Temperature

  • Guideline ages: 11-14, 14-16, 16-18
  • Curriculum links: Temperature and Pressure, Astronomy, Graph Plotting, Digital Literacy

Students use an interactive web-app at . The app works in any browser, and should work on mobile/tablet devices

They are asked to establish which parts of the Solar System are most like the Earth.

Students can then plot the average temperatures of the planets against their distance. Older students may be able to use logarithmic scales.

Modelling planetary temperatures

  • Guideline ages: 16-18
  • Curriculum links: Steffan Boltzmann Law, Graph Plotting, Digital Literacy (recommended)

Students use their knowledge of the Steffan-Boltzmann law to model planetary temperatures and compare with the observed averages. The Steffan-Boltzmann Law equations are given, but the law is not derived or explained.

4 – Detection of Phosphine

  • Student activity: Google Doc
  • Teacher notes: Google Doc
  • Guideline ages: 14-16, 16-18
  • Curriculum links: EM spectrum, emission and absorption lines, Doppler shift

Students are provided with information about the detection of phosphine, such as the wavelengths it emits/absorbs at. Students then use information about the speed of Venus, and the motions of the molecules in Venus’ atmosphere, to explore the Doppler shift of the observations. Note that the Doppler shift is not explained as part of this activity.

5 – Analysis

  • Student Guide: Google Doc
  • Teacher Guide: Google Doc
  • Guideline ages: 14-16 (advanced), 16-18
  • Curriculum links: Abundances, unit conversion, estimation, critical analysis

Students are presented with information about phosphine and its possible origin. They are guided through calculations of the relative abundances, volumes and prediction rates, included conversion of units and analysis of the results. The numbers are adapted from the scientific papers that accompanied the discovery. This activity would be particularly suitable for those planning on writing an extended essay on the discovery.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion featuring four researchers involved in the observation of phosphine on Venus answering teachers’ questions. This session was recorded as part of the IOP Welsh Physics Teachers Conference, October 2020.