Volcanic Activity on Venus Could Explain Phosphine

Ever since the announcement last September that astronomers found evidence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, the planet has been getting a lot of attention. It’s not surprising. Phosphine is a potential biosignature: On Earth, it is produced by microbial life. Might a similar biological process be taking place in the skies of our sister planet? It’s a tantalizing prospect, and is definitely worth examining closely, but it’s too early to be sure. Microbes aren’t the only way to get phosphine. A new paper published on July 12th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that volcanism might instead be to blame for the strange chemistry in the Venusian cloud tops.

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Venus’ Surface Tectonics is More Like Pack ice on Earth

Planets move in mysterious ways.  Or at least their surfaces do.  Earth famously has a system of tectonic plates that drives the movement of its crust.  Those plate tectonics are ultimately driven by the flow of material in the mantle – the layer directly below the crust.  Now, scientists have found a slightly different deformation mechanic on our nearest sister planet – Venus.

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A Crater on Venus Indicates the Planet Hasn’t Been Volcanic for a Long Time

Venus may not have had Earth-like tectonic plates or volcanism for the last billion years, according to a new study. A deep look at a giant impact crater on Venus suggests the planet hasn’t experienced any tectonic activity in the recent past, and might be covered with a in a single outer plate. If so, this would essentially rule out any recent volcanic activity on the planet that many consider Earth’s twin.  

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Ancient Terrain on Venus Looks Like it Was Formed Through Volcanism

Ever since NASA’s Magellan orbiter was able to peak beneath Venus’ dense cloud layer and map out the surface, scientists have puzzled over the planet’s geological history. One of the greatest mysteries is the role volcanic activity has played in shaping Venus’ surface. In particular, there are what is known as “tesserae,” tectonically deformed regions on the surface that often stand above the surrounding landscape.

These features comprise about 7% of the planet’s surface and are consistently the oldest features in their immediate surroundings (dating to about 750 million years ago). In a new study, an international team of geologists and Earth scientists showed how a significant portion of these tesserae appear to be made up of layered rock, which is similar to features on Earth that are the result of volcanic activity.

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It Looks Like There are Still Active Volcanoes on Venus

Venus’ surface is no stranger to volcanoes. Radar images show more than 1,000 volcanic structures on the planet. But for the most part, they appear to be ancient and inactive.

Now a new study says that Venus is still volcanically active, and has identified 37 volcanic structures that were recently active. If true, there’s more going on inside Venus than thought.

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How Long is a Day on Venus? Astronomers Make Their Best Measurement Yet

There’s a problem with Venus. We don’t know how fast it rotates. For a space-faring civilization like ours, that’s a problem.

Measuring the length of day, or rotation rate, of most bodies is pretty straightforward. Mark a prominent surface feature and time how long it takes to rotate 360 degrees. But Venus is blanketed in thick clouds. Those clouds give it its reflectivity, and make it bright and noticeable in the sky, but they make it hard to measure Venus’ day length.

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Lava Flows on Venus Suggest That the Planet Was Never Warm and Wet

Venus is often referred to as “Earth’s sister planet“, owing to the number of similarities between them. Like Earth, Venus is a terrestrial (aka. rocky) planet and it resides with our Sun’s Circumstellar Habitable Zone (CHZ). And for some time, scientists have theorized that billions of years ago, Venus had oceans on its surface and was habitable – aka. not the hot and hellish place it is today.

However, after examining radar data on the Ovda Fluctus lava flow, a team scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Institute concluded that the highlands on Venus are likely to be composed of basaltic lava rock instead of granite. This effectively punches a hole in the main argument for Venus having oceans in the past, which is that the Ovda Regio highlands plateau formed in the presence of water.

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Venus Could Have Supported Life for Billions of Years

In 1978, NASA’s Pioneer Venus (aka. Pioneer 12) mission reached Venus (“Earth’s Sister”) and found indications that Venus may have once had oceans on its surface. Since then, several missions have been sent to Venus and gathered data on its surface and atmosphere. From this, a picture has emerged of how Venus made the transition from being an “Earth-like” planet to the hot and hellish place it is today.

It all started about 700 million years ago when a massive resurfacing event triggered a runaway Greenhouse Effect that caused Venus’s atmosphere to become incredibly dense and hot. This means that for 2 to 3 billion years after Venus formed, the planet could have maintained a habitable environment. According to a recent study, that would have been long enough for life to have emerged on “Earth’s Sister”.

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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.