The Next Generation of Exploration: Back to Venus with VERITAS

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program asked for proposals for the their 13th mission. Last week, five semifinalist were selected from the original 27 submissions for further investigation and refinement. Of the possible missions that could be going up, two involve sending a robotic spacecraft to a planet that NASA has not been to in decades: Venus!

The first is the DAVINCI spacecraft, which would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere. Meanwhile, the proposed VERITAS mission – or The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy spacecraft – would investigate the planet’s surface to determine just how much it has in common with Earth, and whether or not it was ever habitable.

In many respects, this mission would pick up where Magellan left off in the early 1990s. Having reached Venus in 1990, the Magellan spacecraft (otherwise known as the Venus Radar Mapper) mapped nearly the entire surface with an S-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and microwave radiometer. From the data obtained, NASA scientists were able to make radar altimeter measurements of the planet’s topography.

Deployment of Magellan with Inertial Upper Stage booster. Credit: NASA
Deployment of the Magellan spacecraft with the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster during the STS 30 Atlantis flight. Credit: NASA

These measurements revolutionized our understanding of Venus’ geology and the geophysical processes that have shaped the planet’s surface. In addition to revealing a young surface with few impact craters, Magellan also showed evidence of volcanic activity and signs of plate tectonics.

However, the lack of finer resolution imagery and topography of the surface hampered efforts to answer definitively what role these forces have played in the formation and evolution of the surface. As a result, scientists have remained unclear as to what extent certain forces have shaped (and continue to shape) the surface of Venus.

With a suite of modern instruments, the VERITAS spacecraft would produce global, high-resolution topography and imaging of Venus’ surface and produce the first maps of deformation and global surface composition. These include an X-band radar configured as a single pass radar interferometer (known as VISAR) which would be coupled with a multispectral NIR emissivity mapping capability.

 Three-dimensional simulation of Gula Mons captured by the Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) combined with radar altimetry. Credit: NASA/JPL
Three-dimensional simulation of Gula Mons captured by the Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) combined with radar altimetry. Credit: NASA/JPL

Using these, the VERITAS probe will be able to see through Venus’ thick clouds, map the surface at higher resolution than Magellan, and attempt to accomplish three major scientific goals: get a better understanding of Venus’ geologic evolution; determine what geologic processes are currently operating on Venus (including whether or not active volcanoes still exist); and find evidence for past or present water.

Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the mission’s principal investigator, while the JPL would be responsible for  managing the project. As she explained to Universe Today via email:

“VERITAS’ objectives are to reveal Venus’ geologic history, determine how active it is, and search for the fingerprints of past and present water. The overarching question is ‘How Earthlike is  Venus?’ As more and more exoplanets are discovered, this information is  essential to predicting whether Earth-sized planets are more likely to resemble Earth or Venus.”

Venus, image taken by Magellan using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Credit: NASA/JPL
Venus, as imaged by the Magellan spacecraft using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Credit: NASA/JPL

In many ways, VERITAS and DAVINCI represent a vindication for Venus scientists in the United States, who have not sent a probe to the planet since the Magellan orbiter mission ended in 1994. Since that time, efforts have been largely focused on Mars, where orbiters and landers have been looking for evidence of past and present water, and trying to piece together what Mars’ atmosphere used to look like.

But with Discovery Mission 13 and its five semi-finalists, the focus has now shifted onto Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. As John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, explained:

“The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes. Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 for continued development. This final mission (or missions) that are selected will launcd by 2020 at the earliest.

The Planet Venus

As the morning star, the evening star, and the brightest natural object in the sky (after the Moon), human beings have been aware of Venus since time immemorial. Even though it would be many thousands of years before it was recognized as being a planet, its has been a part of human culture since the beginning of recorded history.

Because of this, the planet has played a vital role in the mythology and astrological systems of countless peoples. With the dawn of the modern age, interest in Venus has grown, and observations made about its position in the sky, changes in appearance, and similar characteristics to Earth have taught us much about our Solar System.

Size, Mass, and Orbit:

Because of its similar size, mass, proximity to the Sun, and composition, Venus is often referred to as Earth’s “sister planet”. With a mass of 4.8676×1024 kg, a surface area of 4.60 x 108 km², and a volume of 9.28×1011 km3, Venus is 81.5% as massive as Earth, and has 90% of its surface area and 86.6% of its volume.

Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 0.72 AU (108,000,000 km/67,000,000 mi) with almost no eccentricity. In fact, with its farthest orbit (aphelion) of 0.728 AU (108,939,000 km) and closest orbit (perihelion) of 0.718 AU (107,477,000 km), it has the most circular orbit of any planet in the Solar System.

Size comparison of Venus and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/Magellan
Size comparison of Venus and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/Magellan

When Venus lies between Earth and the Sun, a position known as inferior conjunction, it makes the closest approach to Earth of any planet, at an average distance of 41 million km (making it the closest planet to Earth). This takes place, on average, once every 584 days. The planet completes an orbit around the Sun every 224.65 days, meaning that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth.

Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in an counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (called “retrograde” rotation). It also rotates very slowly, taking 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation. This is not only the slowest rotation period of any planet, it also means that a sidereal day on Venus lasts longer than a Venusian year.

Composition and Surface Features:

Little direct information is available on the internal structure of Venus. However, based on its similarities in mass and density to Earth, scientists believe that they share a similar internal structure – a core, mantle, and crust. Like that of Earth, the Venusian core is believed to be at least be partially liquid because the two planets have been cooling at about the same rate.

One difference between the two planets is the lack of evidence for plate tectonics, which could be due to its crust being too strong to subduct without water to make it less viscous. This results in reduced heat loss from the planet, preventing it from cooling and the possibility that internal heat is lost in periodic major resurfacing events. This is also suggested as a possible reason for why Venus has no internally generated magnetic field.

The internal structure of Venus – the crust (outer layer), the mantle (middle layer) and the core (yellow inner layer). Credit: Public Domain
The internal structure of Venus – the crust (outer layer), the mantle (middle layer) and the core (yellow inner layer). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Venus’ surface appears to have been shaped by extensive volcanic activity. Venus also has several times as many volcanoes as Earth, and has 167 large volcanoes that are over 100 km across. The presence of these volcanoes is due to the lack of plate tectonics, which results in an older, more preserved crust. Whereas Earth’s oceanic crust is subject to subduction at its plate boundaries, and is on average ~100 million years old, the Venusian surface is estimated to be 300-600 million years of age.

There are indications that volcanic activity may be ongoing on Venus. Missions performed by the Soviet space program in 1970s and more recently by the European Space Agency have detected lightning storms in Venus’ atmosphere. Since Venus does not experience rainfall (except in the form of sulfuric acid), it has been theorized that the lightning is being caused by a volcanic eruption.

Other evidence is the periodic rise and fall of sulfur dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which could be the result of periodic, large volcanic eruptions. And finally, localized infrared hot spots (likely to be in the range of 800 – 1100 K) have appeared on the surface, which could represent lava freshly released by volcanic eruptions.

The preservation of Venus’ surface is also responsible for its impact craters, which are impeccably preserved. Almost a thousand craters exist, which are evenly distributed across the surface and range from 3 km to 280 km in diameter. No craters smaller than 3 km exist because of the effect the dense atmosphere has on incoming objects.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.

Essentially, objects with less than a certain amount of kinetic energy are slowed down so much by the atmosphere that they do not create an impact crater. And incoming projectiles less than 50 meters in diameter will fragment and burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the ground.

Atmosphere and Climate:

Surface observations of Venus have been difficult in the past, due to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is composed primarily of carbon dioxide with a small amount of nitrogen. At 92 bar (9.2 MPa), the atmospheric mass is 93 times that of Earth’s atmosphere and the pressure at the planet’s surface is about 92 times that at Earth’s surface.

Venus is also the hottest planet in our Solar System, with a mean surface temperature of 735 K (462 °C/863.6 °F). This is due to the CO²-rich atmosphere which, along with thick clouds of sulfur dioxide, generates the strongest greenhouse effect in the Solar System. Above the dense CO² layer, thick clouds consisting mainly of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid droplets scatter about 90% of the sunlight back into space.

The surface of Venus is effectively isothermal, which means that their is virtually no variation in Venus’ surface temperature between day and night, or the equator and the poles. The planet’s minute axial tilt – less than 3° compared to Earth’s 23° – also minimizes seasonal temperature variation. The only appreciable variation in temperature occurs with altitude.

The highest point on Venus, Maxwell Montes, is therefore the coolest point on the planet, with a temperature of about 655 K (380 °C) and an atmospheric pressure of about 4.5 MPa (45 bar).

Another common phenomena is Venus’ strong winds, which reach speeds of up to 85 m/s (300 km/h; 186.4 mph) at the cloud tops and circle the planet every four to five Earth days. At this speed, these winds move up to 60 times the speed of the planet’s rotation, whereas Earth’s fastest winds are only 10-20% of the planet’s rotational speed.

Venus flybys have also indicated that its dense clouds are capable of producing lightning, much like the clouds on Earth. Their intermittent appearance indicates a pattern associated with weather activity, and the lightning rate is at least half of that on Earth.

Historical Observations:

Although ancients peoples knew about Venus, some of the cultures thought it was two separate celestial objects – the evening star and the morning star. Although the Babylonians realized that these two “stars” were in fact the same object – as indicated in the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, dated 1581 BCE – it was not until the 6th century BCE that this became a common scientific understanding.

Many cultures have identified the planet with their respective goddess of love and beauty. Venus is the Roman name for the goddess of love, while the Babylonians named it Ishtar and the Greeks called it Aphrodite. The Romans also designated the morning aspect of Venus Lucifer (literally “Light-Bringer”) and the evening aspect as Vesper (“evening”, “supper”, “west”), both of which were literal translations of the respective Greek names (Phosphorus and Hesperus).

Venus approaches the Sun in a 2012 transit visible from Earth. Credit: NASA
Venus approaches the Sun in a 2012 transit visible from Earth. Credit: NASA

The transit of Venus in front of the Sun was first observed in 1032 by the Persian astronomer Avicenna, who concluded that Venus is closer to Earth than the Sun. In the 12th century, the Andalusian astronomer Ibn Bajjah observed two black spots in front of the sun, which were later identified as the transits of Venus and Mercury by Iranian astronomer Qotb al-Din Shirazi in the 13th century.

Modern Observations:

By the early 17th century, the transit of Venus was observed by English astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks on December 4th, 1639, from his home. William Crabtree, a fellow English astronomer and friend of Horrocks’, observed the transit at the same time, also from his home.

When the Galileo Galilei first observed the planet in the early 17th century, he found it showed phases like the Moon, varying from crescent to gibbous to full, and vice versa. This behavior, which could only be possible if Venus’ orbited the Sun, became part of Galileo’s challenge to the Ptolemaic geocentric model and his advocacy of the Copernican heliocentric model.

The atmosphere of Venus was discovered in 1761 by Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, and then observed in 1790 by German astronomer Johann Schröter. Schröter found when the planet was a thin crescent, the cusps extended through more than 180°. He correctly surmised this was due to the scattering of sunlight in a dense atmosphere.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES

In December 1866, American astronomer Chester Smith Lyman made observations of Venus from the Yale Observatory, where he was on the board of managers. While observing the planet, he spotted a complete ring of light around the dark side of the planet when it was at inferior conjunction, providing further evidence for an atmosphere.

Little else was discovered about Venus until the 20th century, when the development of spectroscopic, radar, and ultraviolet observations made it possible to scan the surface. The first UV observations were carried out in the 1920s, when Frank E. Ross found that UV photographs revealed considerable detail, which appeared to be the result of a dense, yellow lower atmosphere with high cirrus clouds above it.

Spectroscopic observations in the early 20th century also gave the first clues about the Venusian rotation. Vesto Slipher tried to measure the Doppler shift of light from Venus. After finding that he could not detect any rotation, he surmised the planet must have a very long rotation period. Later work in the 1950s showed the rotation was retrograde.

Radar observations of Venus were first carried out in the 1960s, and provided the first measurements of the rotation period, which were close to the modern value. Radar observations in the 1970s, using the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico revealed details of the Venusian surface for the first time – such as the presence of the Maxwell Montes mountains.

Exploration of Venus:

The first attempts to explore Venus were mounted by the Soviets in the 1960s through the Venera Program. The first spacecraft, Venera-1 (also known in the west as Sputnik-8) was launched on February 12th, 1961. However, contact was lost seven days into the mission when the probe was about 2 million km from Earth. By mid-may, it was estimated that the probe had passed within 100,000 km (62,000 miles) of Venus.

Mariner 1 and 2 made their way to Venus. Mariner 2 was the first successful Venus Flyby. Credit: JPL
The Mariner 1 and 2 spacecrafts made their way to Venus. Mariner 2 was the first successful Venus Flyby on . Credit: NASA/JPL

The United States launched the Mariner 1 probe on July 22nd, 1962, with the intent of conducting a Venus flyby; but here too, contact was lost during launch. The Mariner 2 mission, which launched on December 14th, 1962, became the first successful interplanetary mission and passed within 34,833 km (21,644 mi) of Venus’ surface.

Its observations confirmed earlier ground-based observations which indicated that though the cloud tops were cool, the surface was extremely hot – at least 425 °C (797 °F). This put an end all speculation that the planet might harbor life. Mariner 2 also obtained improved estimates of Venus’s mass, but was unable to detect either a magnetic field or radiation belts.

The Venera-3 spacecraft was the Soviets second attempt to reach Venus, and their first attempted to place a lander on the planet’s surface. The spacecraft cash-landed on Venus on March 1st, 1966, and was the first man-made object to enter the atmosphere and strike the surface of another planet. Unfortunately, its communication system failed before it was able to return any planetary data.

On October 18th, 1967, the Soviets tried again with the Venera-4 spacecraft. After reaching the planet, the probe successfully entered the atmosphere and began studying the atmosphere. In addition to noting the prevalence of carbon dioxide (90-95%), it measured temperatures in excess of what Mariner 2 observed, reaching almost 500 °C. Due to the thickness of Venus’ atmosphere, the probe descended slower than anticipated, and its batteries ran out after 93 minutes when the probe was still 24.96 km from the surface.

Mariner 10
The Mariner 10 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

One day later, on October 19th, 1967, Mariner 5 conducted a fly-by at a distance of less than 4000 km above the cloud tops. Originally built as a backup for the Mars-bound Mariner 4, the probe was refitted for a Venus mission after Venera-4‘s success. The probe managed to collect information on the composition, pressure and density of the Venusian atmosphere, which was then analyzed alongside the Venera-4 data by a Soviet-American science team during a series of symposiums.

Venera-5 and Venera-6 were launched in January of 1969, and reached Venus on 16th and 17th of May. Taking into account the extreme density and pressure of Venus’ atmosphere, these probes were able to achieve a faster descent and reached an altitude of 20 km before being crushed – but not before returning over 50 minutes of atmospheric data.

The Venera-7 was built with the intent of returning data from the planet’s surface, and was construed with a reinforced descent module capable of withstanding intense pressure. While entering the atmosphere on December 15th, 1970, the probe crashed on the surface, apparently due to a ripped parachute. Luckily, it managed to return 23 minutes of temperature data and the first telemetry from the another planet’s surface before going offline.

The Soviets launched three more Venera probes between 1972 and 1975. The first landed on Venus on July 22nd, 1972, and managed to transmit data for 50 minutes. Venera-9 and 10 – which entered Venus’ atmosphere on October 22nd and October 25th, 1975, respectively – both managed to send back images of Venus’ surface, the first images ever taken of another planet’s landscape.

Venera 10 image of Venusian surface (1975). 174-degree raw 6-bit logarithmically encoded telemetry seen above. Linearized and aperture corrected view in center, including data from a second 124-degree panorama. Bottom image had missing portions in-painted with Bertalmio's algorithm. Web site description Venera 10 sent image telemetry for 44.5 minutes, before burning up. It scanned a 17¼ section, then 184¼ and then 63¼. The upper image is the raw 6-bit telemetry, about 115 by 512 pixels. Automatic gain control and logarithmic quantization were used to handle the unknown dynamic range of illumination. The raw image was converted to optical density according to Russian calibration data, then to linear radiance for image processing. It was interpolated with windowed sinc filter to avoid post-aliasing (a "pixilated" appearance), and the modulation transfer function ("aperture") of the camera was corrected with a 1 + 0.2*frequency**2 emphasis. This was then written out as 8-bit gamma-corrected values, using the sRGB standard gamma of 2.2. Some of the telemetry bars from the long panorama were filled in with image data from the other two sections. The bottom image is digitally in-painted, using Bertalmio's isophote-flow algorithm, to fill in missing data.
Images of Venusian surface taken by the Venera 10 lander on October 25th, 1977. Credit: Russian Space Web/Donald Mitchell

On November 3rd, 1973, the United States had sent the Mariner 10 probe on a gravitational slingshot trajectory past Venus on its way to Mercury. By February 5th, 1974, the probe passed within 5790 km of Venus, returning over 4000 photographs. The images, which were the best to date, showed the planet to be almost featureless in visible light; but revealed never-before-seen details about the clouds in ultraviolet light.

By the late seventies, NASA commenced the Pioneer Venus Project, which consisted of two separate missions. The first was the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, which inserted into an elliptical orbit around Venus on December 4th, 1978, where it studied its atmosphere and mapped the surface for a period of 13 days. The second, the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe, released a total of four probes which entered the atmosphere on December 9th, 1978, returning data on its composition, winds and heat fluxes.

Four more Venera lander missions took place between the late 70s and early 80s. Venera 11 and Venera 12 detected Venusian electrical storms; and Venera 13 and Venera 14 landed on the planet on March 1st and 5th, 1982, returning the first color photographs of the surface. The Venera program came to a close in October 1983, when Venera 15 and Venera 16 were placed in orbit to conduct mapping of the Venusian terrain with synthetic aperture radar.

In 1985, the Soviets participated in a collaborative venture with several European states to launch the Vega Program. This two-spacecraft initiative was intended to take advantage of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the inner Solar System, and combine a mission to it with a flyby of Venus. While en route to Halley on June 11th and 15th, the two Vega spacecraft dropped Venera-style probes supported by balloons into the upper atmosphere – which discovered that it was more turbulent than previously estimated, and subject to high winds and powerful convection cells.

The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA
The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Magellan spacecraft was launched on May 4th, 1989, with a mission to map the surface of Venus with radar. In the course of its four and a half year mission, Magellan provided the most high-resolution images to date of the planet and was able to map 98% of the surface and 95% of its gravity field. In 1994, at the end of its mission, Magellan was sent to its destruction into the atmosphere of Venus to quantify its density.

Venus was observed by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft during flybys on their respective missions to the outer planets, but Magellan was the last dedicated mission to Venus for over a decade. It was not until October of 2006 and June of 2007 that the MESSENGER probe would conduct a flyby of Venus (and collect data) in order to slow its trajectory for an eventual orbital insertion of Mercury.

The Venus Express, a probe designed and built by the European Space Agency, successfully assumed polar orbit around Venus on April 11th, 2006. This probe conducted a detailed study of the Venusian atmosphere and clouds, and discovered an ozone layer and a swirling double-vortex at the south pole before concluding its mission in December of 2014.

Future Missions:

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) devised a Venus orbiter – Akatsuki (formerly “Planet-C”) – to conduct surface imaging with an infrared camera, studies on Venus’ lightning, and to determine the existence of current volcanism. The craft was launched on May 20th, 2010, but the craft failed to enter orbit in December 2010. Its main engine is still offline, but its controllers will attempt to use its small attitude control thrusters to make another orbital insertion attempt on December 7th, 2015.

A Venus in Situ exploration mission will help us understand the climate change processes that led to the extreme conditions on Venus today and lay the groundwork for a future Venus sample return mission. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the Venus in Situ explorer mission, which could be deployed to Venus by 2022. Credit: NASA

In late 2013, NASA launched the Venus Spectral Rocket Experiment, a sub-orbital space telescope. This experimented is intended to conduct ultraviolet light studies of Venus’s atmosphere, for the purpose of learning more about the history of water on Venus.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) BepiColombo mission, which will launch in January 2017, will perform two flybys of Venus before it reaches Mercury orbit in 2020. NASA will launch the Solar Probe Plus in 2018, which will perform seven Venus flybys during its six-year mission to study the Sun.

Under its New Frontiers Program, NASA has proposed mounting a lander mission to Venus called the Venus In-Situ Explorer by 2022. The purpose will be to study Venus’ surface conditions and investigate the elemental and mineralogical features of the regolith. The probe would be equipped with a core sampler to drill into the surface and study pristine rock samples not weathered by the harsh surface conditions.

The Venera-D spacecraft is a proposed Russian space probe to Venus, which is scheduled to be launched around 2024. This mission will conduct remote-sensing observations around the planet and deploy a lander, based on the Venera design, capable of surviving for a long duration on the surface.

Because of its proximity to Earth, and its similarity in size, mass and composition, Venus was once believed to hold life. In fact, the idea of Venus being a tropical world persisted well into the 20th century, until the Venera and Mariner programs demonstrated the absolute hellish conditions that actually exist on the planet.

Nevertheless, it is believed that Venus may once have been much like Earth, with a similar atmosphere and warm, flowing water on its surface. This notion is supported by the fact that Venus sits within the inner edge of the Sun’s habitable zone and has an ozone layer. However, owing to the runaway greenhouse effect and the lack of a magnetic field, this water disappeared many billions of years ago.

Still, there are those who believed that Venus could one day support human colonies. Currently, the atmospheric pressure near to the ground is far too extreme for settlements to be built on the surface. But 50 km above the surface, both the temperature and air pressure are similar to Earth’s, and both nitrogen and oxygen are believed to exist. This has led to proposals for “floating cities” to be built in the Venusian atmosphere and the exploration of the atmosphere using Airships.

In addition, proposals have been made suggesting the Venus should be terraformed. These have ranged from installing a huge space-shade to combat the greenhouse effect, to crashing comets into the surface to blow the atmosphere off. Other ideas involve converting the atmosphere using calcium and magnesium to sequester the carbon away.

Much like proposals to terraform Mars, these ideas are all in their infancy and are hard-pressed to address the long-term challenges associated with changing the planet’s climate. However, they do show that humanity’s fascination with Venus has not diminished over time. From being a central to our mythology and the first star we saw in the morning (and the last one we saw at night), Venus has since gone on to become a subject of fascination for astronomers and a possible prospect for off-world real estate.

But until such time as technology improves, Venus will remain Earth’s hostile and inhospitable “sister planet”, with intense pressure, sulfuric acid rains, and a toxic atmosphere.

We have written many interesting articles about Venus here at Universe Today. For example, here’s The Planet Venus, Interesting Facts About Venus, What is the Average Temperature of Venus?, How Do We Terraform Venus? and Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode on the subject – Episode 50: Venus, and Larry Esposito and Venus Express.

For more information, be sure to check out NASA Solar System Exploration: Venus and NASA Facts: Magellan Mission to Venus.

Interesting Facts About Venus

Venus was once considered a twin to Earth, as it’s roughly the same size and is relatively close to our planet. But once astronomers looked at it seriously in the past half-century or so, a lot of contrasts emerged. The biggest one — Venus is actually a hothouse planet with a runaway greenhouse effect, making it inhospitable to life as we know it. Here are some more interesting facts about Venus.

1. Venus’ atmosphere killed spacecraft dead very quickly:
You sure don’t want to hang around on Venus’ surface. The pressure there is so great that spacecraft need shielding to survive. The atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide with bits of sulfuric acid, NASA says, which is deadly to humans. And if that’s not bad enough, the temperature at the surface is higher than 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit). The Soviet Venera probes that ventured to the surface decades ago didn’t last more than two hours.

2. But conditions are more temperate higher in the atmosphere:
While you still couldn’t breathe the atmosphere high above Venus’ surface, at about  50 kilometers (31 miles) you’ll at least find the same pressure and atmosphere density as that of Earth. A very preliminary NASA study suggests that at some point, we could deploy airships for humans to explore Venus. And the backers suggest it may be more efficient to go to Venus than to Mars, with one large reason being that Venus is closer to Earth.

Artist's conception of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission, a far-out concept being developed by NASA, approaching the planet. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/YouTube (screenshot)
Artist’s conception of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission, a far-out concept being developed by NASA, approaching the planet. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/YouTube (screenshot)

3. Venus is so bright it is sometimes mistaken for a UFO:
The planet is completely socked in by cloud, which makes it extremely reflective to observers looking at the sky on Earth. Its brightness is between -3.8 and -4.8 magnitude, which makes it brighter than the stars in the sky. In fact, it’s so bright that you can see it go through phases in a telescope — and it can cast shadows! So that remarkable appearance can confuse people not familiar with Venus in the sky, leading to reports of airplanes or UFOs.

4. And those clouds mean you can’t see the surface:
If you were to look at Venus with your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to see its surface. That’s because the clouds are so thick that they obscure what is below. NASA got around that problem when it sent the Magellan probe to Venus for exploration in the 1990s. The probe orbited the planet and got a complete surface picture using radar.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES

5. Venus has volcanoes and a fresh face:
Venus has fresh lava flows on its surface, which implies that volcanoes erupted anywhere from the past few hundred years to the past three million years. What this means is there are few impact craters on the surface, likely because the lava flowed over them and filled them in. While scientists believe the volcanoes are responsible, the larger question is how frequently this occurs.

6. Venus has a bizarre rotation:
Venus not only rotates backwards compared to the other planets, but it rotates very slowly. In fact, a day on Venus (243 days) lasts longer than it takes the planet to orbit around the Sun (225 days). Even more strangely, the rotation appears to be slowing down; Venus is turning 6.5 minutes more slowly in 2014 than in the early 1990s. One theory for the change could be the planet’s weather; its thick atmosphere may grind against the surface and slow down the rotation.

Artist's conception of Venus Express doing an aerobraking maneuver in the atmosphere in 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
Artist’s conception of Venus Express doing an aerobraking maneuver in the atmosphere in 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

7. Venus has no moons or rings:
The two planets closest to the Sun have no rings or moons, which puts Venus in the company of only one other world: Mercury. Every other planet in the Solar System has one or the other, or in many cases both! Why this is is a mystery to scientists, but they are doing as much comparison of different planets as possible to understand what’s going on.

8. Venus appears to be a spot where spacecraft go to extremes:
We briefly mentioned the Venera probes that landed on the surface, but that’s not the only unusual spacecraft activity at Venus. In 2014, the European Space Agency put an orbiter — that’s right, a spacecraft not designed to survive the atmosphere — into the upper parts of Venus’ dense atmosphere. Venus Express did indeed survive the encounter (before it ran out of gas), with the goal of providing more information about how the atmosphere looks at high altitudes. This could help with landings in the future.

As you can see, Venus is an interesting, mysterious, and extremely hostile world. With such a corrosive atmosphere, such incredible heat, a volcanically-scarred surface, and thick clouds of toxic gas, one would have to be crazy to want to live there. And yet, there are some who believe Venus could be terraformed for human use, or at the very least explored using airships, in the coming generations.

But that’s the thing about interesting places. Initially, they draw their fair share of research and attention. But eventually, the dreamers and adventurers come.

What is the Average Surface Temperature on Venus?

Venus is often referred to as our “sister planet,” due to the many geophysical similarities that exist between it Earth. For starters, our two planets are close in mass, with Venus weighing in at 4.868 x 1024 kg compared to Earth’s 5.9736×1024 kg. In terms of size, the planets are almost identical, with Venus measuring 12,100 km in diameter and Earth 12,742 km.

In terms of density and gravity, the two are neck and neck – with Venus boasting 86.6% of the former and 90.7% of the latter. Venus also has a thick atmosphere, much like our own, and it is believed that both planets share a common origin, forming at the same time out of a condensing clouds of dust particles around 4.5 billion years ago.

However, for all the characteristics these two planets have in common, average temperature is not one of them. Whereas the Earth has an average surface temperature of 14 degrees Celsius, the average temperature of Venus is 460 degrees Celsius. That is roughly 410 degrees hotter than the hottest deserts on our planet.

In fact, at a searing 750 K (477 °C), the surface of Venus is the hottest in the solar system. Venus is closer to the Sun by 108 million km, (about 30% closer than the Earth), but it is mainly due to the planet’s thick atmosphere. Unlike Earth’s, which is composed primarily of nitrogen, oxygen and ozone, Venus’ atmosphere is an incredibly dense cloud of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide gas.

The combination of these gases in high concentrations causes a catastrophic greenhouse effect that traps incident sunlight and prevents it from radiating into space. This results in an estimated surface temperature boost of 475 K (201.85 °C), leaving the surface a molten, charred mess that nothing (that we know of) can live on. Atmospheric pressure also plays a role, being 91 times that of what it is here on Earth; and clouds of toxic vapor constantly rain sulfuric acid on the surface.

In addition, the surface temperature on Venus does not vary like it does here on Earth. On our planet, temperatures vary wildly due to the time of year and even more so based on the location on our planet. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C in the Lut Desert of Iran in 2005. On the other end of the spectrum, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Vostok, Antarctica at -89.2 C.

But on Venus, the surface temperature is 460 degrees Celsius, day or night, at the poles or at the equator. Beyond its thick atmosphere, Venus’ axial tilt (aka. obliquity) plays a role in this temperature consistency. Earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 ° in relation to the Sun, whereas Venus’ is only tilted by 3 °.

The only respite from the heat on Venus is to be found around 50 km into the atmosphere. It is at that point that temperatures and atmospheric pressure are equal to that of Earth’s. It is for this reason that some scientists believe that floating habitats could be constructed here, using Venus’ thick clouds to buoy the habitats high above the surface. Additionally, in 2014, a group of mission planners from NASA Langely came up with a mission to Venus’ atmosphere using airships.

These habitats could play an important role in the terraforming of Venus as well, acting as scientific research stations that could either fire off the excess atmosphere off into space, or introduce bacteria or chemicals that could convert all the CO2 and SO2 into a hospitable, breathable atmosphere.

Beyond the fact that it is a hot and hellish landscape, very little is known about Venus’ surface environment. This is due to the thick atmosphere, which has made visual observation impossible. The sulfuric acid is also problematic since clouds composed of it are highly reflective of visible light, which prevents optical observation. Probes have been sent to the surface in the past, but the volatile and corrosive environment means that anything that lands there can only survive for a few hours.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: Magellan Team/NASA/JPL

What little we know about the planet’s surface has come from years worth of radar imaging, the most recent of which was conducted by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft (aka. the Venus Radar Mapper). Using synthetic aperture radar, the robotic space probe spent four years (1990-1994) mapping the surface of Venus and measuring its gravitational field before its orbit decayed and it was “disposed of” in the planet’s atmosphere.

The images provided by this and other missions revealed a surface dominated by volcanoes. There are at least 1,000 volcanoes or volcanic centers larger than 20 km in diameter on Venus’ harsh landscape. Many scientists believe Venus was resurfaced by volcanic activity 300 to 500 million years ago. Lava flows are a testament to this, which appear to have produced channels of hardened magma that extend for hundreds of km in all directions. The mixture of volcanic ash and the sulfuric acid clouds is also known to produce intense lightning and thunder storms.

The temperature of Venus is not the only extreme on the planet. The atmosphere is constantly churned by hurricane force winds reaching 360 kph. Add to that the crushing air pressure and rainstorms of sulfuric acid, and it becomes easy to see why Venus is such a barren, lifeless rock that has been hard to explore.

We have written many articles about Venus for Universe Today. Here are some interesting facts about Venus, and here’s an article about Venus Greenhouse Effect. And here is an article about the many interesting pictures taken of Venus over the past few decades.

If you’d like more information on Venus, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Venus, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Venus.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Venus. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.