Morning Star, We Hardly Knew Ya: Venus Express’ Best Discoveries In 8 Years

Venus Express is mostly dead. The spacecraft spent more than eight years faithfully relaying information from the Morning Star/Evening Star planet, but it’s now out of fuel, out of control and within weeks of burning up in the atmosphere.

While we mourn the end of the productive mission, the European Space Agency spacecraft showed us a lot about the planet that we once considered a twin to Earth. Some of the surprises, as you can see below, including a possibly slowing-down rotation, and the realization that volcanoes may still be active on the hellish planet.

False color composite of a rainbow-like feature known as a ‘glory’, seen on Venus on 24 July 2011. The image is composed of three images at ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths from the Venus Monitoring Camera. The images were taken 10 seconds apart and, due to the motion of the spacecraft, do not overlap perfectly. The glory is 1200 km across, as seen from the spacecraft, 6000 km away. It’s the only glory ever seen on another planet. Credit: ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Quick video summary: Venus Express found that the spacecraft’s rotation may have slowed down by 6.5 minutes between 1996 (when the Magellan spacecraft was in orbit) and 2012. The surprising information emerged when scientists discovered surface features weren’t in the expected areas, and couldn’t find any calculation errors between the data.

Animation of Venus’ southern polar vortex made from VIRTIS thermal infrared images; white is cooler clouds at higher altitudes. Credit: ESA/VIRTIS-VenusX/INAF-IASF/LESIA-Obs. de Paris (G. Piccioni, INAF-IASF)

Quick video summary: Volcanic flows may still be active on Venus’ surface, according to 2010 data from the mission. Scientists looked at surface areas that had not been “weathered” very much (indicating that they are relatively young) and detected at least nine spots where the heat in those zones is much higher than the areas around it.

A picture of Venus’ clouds. Despite the planet being extremely hot, Venus Express found a cold layer in the atmosphere at temperatures of about -175 degrees Celsius (-283 Fahrenheit) that is colder than anything on Earth. It’s so chilling that carbon dioxide may freeze and fall as snow or ice. Credit: ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Artist’s impression of Venus with the solar wind flowing around the planet, which has little magnetic protection. Venus Express found that a lot of water has bled into space over the years from the planet, which happens when the sun’s ultraviolet radiation breaks oxygen and hydrogen molecules apart and pushes them into space. Credit: ESA – C. Carreau
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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