Venus is the Perfect Place to Count Meteors

DALL-E illustration depicting a meteor streaking through the atmosphere of Venus.

Watching meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere and streak across the sky as the visual spectacle known as meteors, it is one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles on Earth, often exhibiting multiple colors as they blaze through the atmosphere, which often reveals their mineral compositions. But what if we could detect and observe meteors streaking through the atmospheres of other planets that possess atmospheres, like Venus, and use this to better determine meteoroid compositions and sizes?

This is what a recently accepted study to Icarus hopes to address as a pair of international researchers investigate how a future Venus orbiter could be used to study meteors streaking through the planet’s thick atmosphere. This study holds the potential to help scientists better understand meteoroids throughout the solar system.

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Where Did Venus's Water Go?

HCO+ molecules reacting in the atmosphere of Venus. Credit: Aurore Simonnet/LASP/CU Boulder
In Venus' upper atmosphere, hydrogen atoms, orange, whiz into space, leaving behind carbon monoxide molecules, blue and purple. (Credit: Aurore Simonnet/LASP/CU Boulder)

It should not be surprising that Venus is dry. It is famous for its hellish conditions, with dense sulphurous clouds, rains of acid, atmospheric pressures comparable to a 900 meter deep lake, and a surface temperature high enough to melt lead. But it’s lack of water is not just a lack of rain and oceans: there’s no ice or water vapour either. Like Earth, Venus is found within our Solar System’s goldilocks zone, so it would have had plenty of water when it was first formed. So where did all of Venus’s water go?

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Volcanoes Were Erupting on Venus in the 1990s

3D model of Venus

Start talking about Venus and immediately my mind goes to those images from the Venera space probes that visited Venus in the 1970’s. They revealed a world that had been scarred by millennia of volcanic activity yet as far as we could tell those volcanoes were dormant. That is, until just now.  Magellan has been mapping the surface of Venus and between 1990 and 1992 had mapped 98% of the surface. Researchers compared two scans of the same area and discovered that there were fresh outflows of molten rock filling a vent crater! There was active volcanism on Venus. 

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What Deadly Venus Can Tell Us About Life on Other Worlds

Earth and Venus. Why are they so different and what do the differences tell us about rocky exoplanet habitability? Image Credit: NASA

Even though Venus and Earth are so-called sister planets, they’re as different as heaven and hell. Earth is a natural paradise where life has persevered under its azure skies despite multiple mass extinctions. On the other hand, Venus is a blistering planet with clouds of sulphuric acid and atmospheric pressure strong enough to squash a human being.

But the sister thing won’t go away because both worlds are about the same mass and radius and are rocky planets next to one another in the inner Solar System. Why are they so different? What do the differences tell us about our search for life?

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Could Life Exist in Water Droplet Worlds in Venus’ Atmosphere?

Could life exist within Venus' voluminous clouds? New research says yes. Image Credit: Abreu et al. 2024.

It’s a measure of human ingenuity and curiosity that scientists debate the possibility of life on Venus. They established long ago that Venus’ surface is absolutely hostile to life. But didn’t scientists find a biomarker in the planet’s clouds? Could life exist there, never touching the planet’s sweltering surface?

It seems to depend on who you ask.

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How Much of Venus’s Atmosphere is Coming from Volcanoes?

There’s a lot we don’t know about the planet nearest to us. Venus is shrouded in clouds, making speculation about what’s happening on its surface a parlor game for many planetary scientists for decades. But one idea that always seems to come up in those conversations – volcanoes. It’s clear that Venus has plenty of volcanoes – estimates center around about 85,000 of them in total. However, science is still unclear as to whether there is any active volcanism on Venus or not. A new set of missions to the planet will hopefully shed some light on the topic – and a new paper from researchers from Europe looks at how we might use information from those missions to do so.

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NASA’s VERITAS Mission Breathes New Life

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In a win for planetary scientists, and planetary geologists in particular, it was announced at the recent 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas earlier this month that NASA’s VERITAS mission to the planet Venus has been reinstated into NASA’s Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) budget with a scheduled launch date of 2031, with the unofficial announcement coming on the first day of the conference, March 11, 2024, and being officially announced just a few days later. This comes after VERITAS experienced a “soft cancellation” in March of last year when NASA revealed its FY24 budget, providing VERITAS only $1.5 million, which was preceded by the launch of VERITAS being delayed a minimum of three years due to findings from an independent review board in November 2022.

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Venus “Quasi-moon” Just Got a Name. Henceforth, it Shall be Called Zoozve.

The children’s poster of the Solar System that features Zoozve, Venus's quasi-moon. Credit: Alex Foster/Latif Nasser

Ask any astronomer, and they will tell you that all of the planets in the Solar System (including those “dwarf planets”) have satellites, with the exception of Mercury and Venus. However, that is not entirely the case, as Venus has what is known as a “quasi-moon” – a large asteroid that orbits the planet but is not gravitationally bound to it. In 2002, astronomer Brian Skiff discovered this body using the Discovery Telescope at the Lowell Observatory (where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto). Until recently, this object was known by its official designation, 2002VE68.

However, on February 5th, 2024, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) conferred a new name for the object: Zoozve. The name was announced in a bulletin (vol. 4, no. 5) issued by the IAU’s Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN). The IAU, which is responsible for naming celestial objects, traditionally prefers to assign names that come from mythological traditions to objects that cross Earth’s orbit. But in this case, the origins of Zoozve’s strange name are more of (to quote Bob Ross) a “happy accident,” where a children’s poster that showed the object led to a conversation and an official request.

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Why Venus Died

Venus is only slightly smaller than the Earth, and so has enjoyed billions of years of a warm heart. But for this planet, sometimes called Earth’s sister, that heat has betrayed it. That planet is now wrapped in suffocating layers of a poisonous atmosphere made of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. The pressures on the surface reach almost 100 times the air pressure at Earth’s sea level. The average temperatures are over 700 degrees Fahrenheit, more than hot enough to melt lead, while the deepest valleys see records of over 900 degrees.

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Venus’ Clouds Contain Sulfuric Acid. That’s Not a Problem for Life.

Photo of Venus (Credit: Akatsuki)

A recent study published in Astrobiology investigates the potential habitability in the clouds of Venus, specifically how amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, could survive in the sulfuric acid-rich upper atmosphere of Venus. This comes as the potential for life in Venus’ clouds has become a focal point of contention within the astrobiology community in the last few years. On Earth, concentrated sulfuric acid is known for its corrosivity towards metals and rocks and for absorbing water vapor. In Venus’ upper atmosphere, it forms from solar radiation interacting with sulfur dioxide, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.

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