Venus Express Probe Reveals the Planet’s Mysterious Night Side

Venus’ atmosphere is as mysterious as it is dense and scorching. For generations, scientists have sought to study it using ground-based telescopes, orbital missions, and the occasional atmospheric probe. And in 2006, the ESA’s Venus Express mission became the first probe to conduct long-term observations of the planet’s atmosphere, which revealed much about its dynamics.

Using this data, a team of international scientists – led by researchers from the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) – recently conducted a study that characterized the wind and upper cloud patterns on the night side of Venus. In addition to being the first of its kind, this study also revealed that the atmosphere behaves differently on the night side, which was unexpected.

The study, titled “Stationary Waves and Slowly Moving Features in the Night Upper Clouds of Venus“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy. Led by Javier Peralta, the International Top Young Fellow of JAXA, the team consulted data obtained by Venus Express’ suite of scientific instruments in order to study the planet’s previously-unseen cloud types, morphologies, and dynamics.

The atmospheric super-rotation at the upper clouds of Venus. While the super-rotation is present in both day and night sides of Venus, it seems more uniform in the day. Credits: JAXA, ESA, J. Peralta and R. Hueso.

Whereas plenty of studies have been conducted of Venus’ atmosphere from soace, this was the first time that a study was not focused on the dayside of the planet. As Dr. Peralta explained in an ESA press statement:

This is the first time we’ve been able to characterize how the atmosphere circulates on the night side of Venus on a global scale. While the atmospheric circulation on the planet’s dayside has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the dayside, and influenced by Venus’ topography.

Since the 1960s, astronomers have been aware that Venus’ atmosphere behaves much differently that those of other terrestrial planets. Whereas Earth and Mars have atmospheres that co-rotate at approximately the same speed as the planet, Venus’ atmosphere can reach speeds of more than 360 km/h (224 mph). So while the planet takes 243 days to rotate once on its axis, the atmosphere takes only 4 days.

This phenomena, known as “super-rotation”, essentially means that the atmosphere moves over 60 times faster than the planet itself. In addition, measurements in the past have shown that the fastest clouds are located at the upper cloud level, 65 to 72 km (40 to 45 mi) above the surface. Despite decades of study, atmospheric models have been unable to reproduce super-rotation, which indicated that some of the mechanics were unknown.

Artist’s impression of the atmosphere of Venus, showing its lightning storms and a volcano in the distance. Credit and ©: European Space Agency/J. Whatmore

As such, Peralta and his international team – which included researchers from the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain, the University of Tokyo, the Kyoto Sangyo University, the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (ZAA) at Berlin Technical University, and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Planetology in Rome – chose to look at the unexplored side to see what they could find. As he described it:

“We focused on the night side because it had been poorly explored; we can see the upper clouds on the planet’s night side via their thermal emission, but it’s been difficult to observe them properly because the contrast in our infrared images was too low to pick up enough detail.”

This consisted of observing Venus’ night side clouds with the probe’s Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS). The instrument gathered hundreds of images simultaneously and different wavelengths, which the team then combined to improve the visibility of the clouds. This allowed the team to see them properly for the first time, and also revealed some unexpected things about Venus’ night side atmosphere.

What they saw was that atmospheric rotation appeared to be more chaotic on the night side than what has been observed in the past on the dayside. The upper clouds also formed different shapes and morphologies – i.e. large, wavy, patchy, irregular and filament-like patterns  – and were dominated by stationary waves, where two waves moving in opposite directions cancel each other out and create a static weather pattern.

Examples of new types of cloud morphology discovered on the night side of Venus thanks to Venus Express (ESA) and the infrared telescope IRTF (NASA). Credits: ESA/NASA/J. Peralta and R. Hueso.

The 3D properties of these stationary waves were also obtained by combining VIRTIS data with radio-science data from the Venus Radio Science experiment (VeRa). Naturally, the team was surprised to find these kinds of atmospheric behaviors since they were inconsistent with what has been routinely observed on the dayside. Moreover, they contradict the best models for explaining the dynamics of Venus’ atmosphere.

Known as Global Circulation Models (GCMs), these models predict that on Venus, super-rotation would occur in much the same way on both the dayside and the night side. What’s more, they noticed that stationary waves on the night side appeared to coincide with high-elevation features. As Agustin Sánchez-Lavega, a researcher from the University del País Vasco and a co-author on the paper, explained:

Stationary waves are probably what we’d call gravity waves–in other words, rising waves generated lower in Venus’ atmosphere that appear not to move with the planet’s rotation. These waves are concentrated over steep, mountainous areas of Venus; this suggests that the planet’s topography is affecting what happens way up above in the clouds.

This is not the first time that scientists have spotted a possible link between Venus’ topography and its atmospheric motion. Last year, a team of European astronomers produced a study that showed how weather patterns and rising waves on the dayside appeared to be directly connected to topographical features. These findings were based on UV images taken by the Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) on board the Venus Express.

Schematic illustration of the proposed behaviour of gravity waves in the vicinity of mountainous terrain on Venus. Credit: ESA

Finding something similar happening on the night side was something of a surprise, until they realized they weren’t the only ones to spot them. As Peralta indicated:

It was an exciting moment when we realized that some of the cloud features in the VIRTIS images didn’t move along with the atmosphere. We had a long debate about whether the results were real–until we realised that another team, led by co-author Dr. Kouyama, had also independently discovered stationary clouds on the night side using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) in Hawaii! Our findings were confirmed when JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft was inserted into orbit around Venus and immediately spotted the biggest stationary wave ever observed in the Solar System on Venus’ dayside.

These findings also challenge existing models of stationary waves, which are expected to form from the interaction of surface wind and high-elevation surface features. However, previous measurements conducted by the Soviet-era Venera landers have indicated that surface winds might too weak for this to happen on Venus. In addition, the southern hemisphere, which the team observed for their study, is quite low in elevation.

And as Ricardo Hueso of the University of the Basque Country (and a co-author on the paper) indicated, they did not detect corresponding stationary waves in the lower cloud levels. “We expected to find these waves in the lower levels because we see them in the upper levels, and we thought that they rose up through the cloud from the surface,” he said. “It’s an unexpected result for sure, and we’ll all need to revisit our models of Venus to explore its meaning.”

Artist’s impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet’s atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

From this information, it seems that topography and elevation are linked when it comes to Venus’ atmospheric behavior, but not consistently. So the standing waves observed on Venus’ night side may be the result of some other undetected mechanism at work. Alas, it seems that Venus’ atmosphere – in particular, the key aspect of super-rotation – still has some mysteries for us.

The study also demonstrated the effectiveness of combining data from multiple sources to get a more detailed picture of a planet’s dynamics. With further improvements in instrumentation and data-sharing (and perhaps another mission or two to the surface) we can expect to get a clearer picture of what is powering Venus’ atmospheric dynamics before long.

With a little luck, there may yet come a day when we can model the atmosphere of Venus and predict its weather patterns as accurately as we do those of Earth.

Further Reading: ESA, Nature Astronomy

Gravity Waves On Pluto?

The varying brightness in Pluto's atmosphere is caused by atmospheric gravity waves, or buoyancy waves. Image: NASA/New Horizons/Johns Hopkins APL/SWRI

New Horizons’ historic journey to Pluto and beyond continues to provide surprises. As data from the spacecraft’s close encounter with Pluto and its moons arrives at Earth, scientists are piecing together an increasingly intriguing picture of the dwarf planet. The latest discovery is centred around Pluto’s atmosphere, and what are called ‘atmospheric gravity waves.’

Atmospheric gravity waves are a different phenomenon than the gravity waves that were detected for the first time in February, 2016. Those gravity waves are ripples in the fabric of space time, first predicted by Albert Einstein back in 1916. After years of searching, the LIGO instrument detected gravity waves that resulted from two black holes colliding. The discovery of what you might call ‘Einsteinian Gravity Waves’ may end up revolutionizing astronomy.

New Horizons has revealed surprise after surprise in its study of Pluto. Its atmosphere has turned out to be much more complex than anybody expected. It’s composed of 90% nitrogen, with extensive haze layers. Scientists have discovered that Pluto’s atmosphere can vary in brightness depending on viewpoint and illumination, while the vertical structure of the layered haze remains unchanged.

Scientists studying the New Horizons’ data think that atmospheric gravity waves, also called buoyancy waves, are responsible. Atmospheric gravity waves are known to exist on only two other planets; Earth and Mars. They are typically caused by wind flowing over obstructions like mountain ranges.

The layers in Pluto’s atmosphere, and their varying brightness, are most easily seen when they are backlit by the Sun. This was the viewpoint New Horizons had when it captured these images on its departure from Pluto on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured them, using time intervals of 2 to 5 hours. What they show is the brightness of the layers changing by 30% without any change in their height above the surface of the planet.

LORRI, as its name suggests, is a long range image capture instrument. It also captures high resolution geologic data, and was used to map Pluto’s far side. The principal investigator for LORRI is Andy Cheng, from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland. “Pluto is simply amazing,” said Andy Cheng. “When I first saw these images and the haze structures that they reveal, I knew we had a new clue to the nature of Pluto’s hazes. The fact that we don’t see the haze layers moving up or down will be important to future modelling efforts.”

Overall, Pluto and its system of moons has turned out to be a much more dynamic place than previously thought. A geologically active landscape, possible ice volcanoes, eroding cliffs made of methane ice, and more, have woken us up to Pluto’s complexity. But its atmosphere has turned out to be just as complex and puzzling.

New Horizons has departed the Pluto system now, and is headed for the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is considered a relic of the early Solar System. New Horizons will visit another icy world there, and hopefully continue on to the edge of the heliosphere, the same way the Voyage probes have. New Horizons has enough energy to last until approximately the mid-2030’s, if all goes well.