How Far is Venus From the Sun?

Earth and Venus are often called “sister planets” because they share some key characteristics. Like Earth, Venus is a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of silicate minerals and metals) and orbits within our Sun’s habitable zone. But of course, they are also some major differences between them, like the fact that Venus’ is atmosphere is extremely dense and the hottest in the Solar System.

This is particularly interesting when you consider that Venus is not the closest planet to our Sun (that would be Mercury). In fact, its distance from the Sun is just over 70% the distance between Earth and the Sun. And due to its low eccentricity, there is very little variation in its distance during the course of its orbital period.

Perihelion and Aphelion:

While all planets follow an elliptical orbit, Venus’s orbit is the least eccentric of any of the Solar Planets. In fact, with an eccentricity of just 0.006772 , its orbit is the closest to being circular of any of the planets. It’s average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 108,208,000 km (67,237,334 mi), and ranges from 107,477,000 km (66,783,112 mi) at perihelion to 108,939,000 km (67,691,556 mi) at aphelion.

Earth and Venus’ orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope

To put it another way, Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance of 0.723 AU, which ranges from 0.718 AU at its closest to 0.728 AU at its farthest. Compare this to Earth’s eccentricity of 0.0167, which means that it orbits the Sun at an average distance of 1 AU, and that this distance ranges between 0.983 and 1.0167 AUs during its orbital period.

To express that in precise terms, the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 149,598,023 km (92,955,902 mi), and varies between a distance of 147,095,000 km (91,401,000 mi) at perihelion to a distance of 152,100,000 km (94,500,000 mi) at aphelion.

Mars, by contrast, orbits the Sun at an average distance of 227,939,200 km (141,634,852 mi), or 1.52 AU. But due to its high eccentricity of 0.0934, it ranges from a distance of 206,700,000 km (128,437,425 mi) at perihelion to 249,200,000 km (154,845,700 mi) at aphelion – or between 1.38 to 1.666 AUs.

Mercury, meanwhile, has the highest eccentricity of any planet in the Solar System – a surprising 0.2056. While it’s average distance from the Sun is 57,909,050 km (35,983,015 mi), or 0.387 AU, it ranges from 46,001,200 km (28,583,820 mi) at perihelion to 69,816,900 km (43,382,210 mi) at aphelion – or 0.3075 to 0.4667 AUs.

Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

Hence, you might say Venus is something of an oddity compared to its fellow-terrestrial planets. Whereas they all orbit our Sun with a certain degree of eccentricity (from fair to extreme), Venus is the closest to orbiting in a circular pattern. And with an orbital velocity of 35.02 km/s (126,072 km/h; 78,337.5 mph), Venus takes 224.7 Earth days to complete a single orbit around the Sun.

Retrograde Motion:

Another oddity of Venus is the peculiar nature of its rotation. Whereas most objects in our Solar System have a rotation that is in the same direction as their orbit around the Sun, Venus’ rotation is retrograde to its orbit. In other words, if you could view the Solar System from above the Sun’s northern polar region, all of the planets would appear to be orbiting it in a counter-clockwise direction.

They would also appear to be rotating on their axis in the same counter-clockwise direction. But Venus would appear to be slowly rotating in a clockwise direction, taking about 243 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.

A popular theory states that this is due to two major impacts taking place between Venus and a series protoplanets in the distant past. Much like the impact that is believed to have created the Moon (between Earth and Theia), the first of these impact would have created a moon in orbit of Venus, while a second (10 million years later) would reverseed its rotation and caused the moon to de-orbit.

Artist’s concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Every planet in our Solar System has is shares of quirks, and Venus is no exception. She’s “Earth’s Sister”, and she’s prone to extreme temperatures that do not vary. And her orbit is the most stable of any planet, also with very little variation. You might say Venus is the extremely hot-tempered sibling of Earth, and very straight-laced to boot!

We have written many articles about the orbits of the planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Far are the Planets from the Sun?, How Far is Mercury from the Sun?, How Far is the Earth from the Sun?, How Far is the Moon from the Sun?, How Far is the Asteroid Belt from the Sun?, How Far is Jupiter from the Sun?, How Far is Saturn from the Sun?, How Far is Uranus from the Sun?, How Far is Neptune from the Sun?, and How Far is Pluto from the Sun?

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.

Sources:

The Orbit of Venus. How Long is a Year on Venus?

Venus and Earth have many similarities. Both are terrestrial planets, meaning that they are composed predominately of metal and silicate rock, which is differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust. Both also orbit the Sun within its habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone“). Hence why Venus and Earth are often called “sister planets”.

However, Venus is also starkly different from Earth in a number of ways. It’s atmosphere, which is composed primarily of carbon dioxide and small amounts of nitrogen, is 92 times as dense as Earth’s. It is also the hottest planet in the Solar System, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead! And on top of all that, a year on Venus is much different than a year on Earth.

Orbital Period:

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.

Earth and Venus’ orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope

The planet’s orbital period is 224.65 days, which means 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.

Sidereal vs. Solar Day:

While a year on Venus lasts the equivalent of 224.65 Earth days, it only lasts the equivalent 1.92 days on Venus. This is due to the fact that Venus rotates quick slowly and in the opposite direction of its orbit. Because of this, a Solar Day – the time it takes for the Sun to rise, set, and return to the same place in the sky – takes 116.75 Earth days.

This means, in effect, that a single day on Venus lasts over half a year. In other words, in the space of just over a single Venusian year, the Sun will appear to have circled the heavens twice. In addition, to someone standing on the planet’s surface, the Sun would appear to rise in the west and set in the east.

Variations:

Because of its dense atmosphere and its highly circular rotation, Venus experiences very little in the way of temperature variations during the course of a year. Similarly, its axial tilt of 2.64° (compared to Earth’s 23.44°) is the second-lowest in the Solar System, behind Mercury’s extremely low tilt of 0.03.

This means that there is virtually no variation in Venus’ surface temperature between day and night, or the equator and the poles. All year long, the mean surface temperature of Venus is a scorching 735 K (462 °C/863.6 °F), with the only variations occurring as a result of elevation.

Yes, Venus is a truly hellish place. And unfortunately, that’s a year-round phenomena! The days are extremely hot, the nights extremely hot, and a day lasts over half as long as a year. So if you’re planning on vacationing somewhere, might we recommend somewhere a little less sunny and balmy?

We’ve written several articles about years on other planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury?, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?

If you’d like more info 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 episode of Astronomy Cast all about Venus. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.

Sources:

What is the Weather like on Venus?

Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Today, we look at Earth’s overheated “sister planet”, Venus!

Venus is often called Earth’s “Sister Planet” because of all the things they have in common. They are comparable in size, have similar compositions, and both orbit within the Sun’s habitable zone. But beyond that, there are some notable differences that makes Venus a molten hellhole, and about the last place anyone would want to visit!

Much of this has to do with Venus’ atmosphere, which is incredibly dense and entirely hostile to life as we know it. And because of its natural density and composition, the average surface temperature of Venus is hot enough to melt lead. All of this adds up to some pretty interesting weather patterns, which are also incredibly hostile!

Venus Atmosphere:

Although carbon dioxide is invisible, the clouds on Venus are made up of opaque clouds of sulfuric acid, so we can’t see down to the surface using conventional methods. Everything we know about the surface of Venus has been gathered by spacecraft equipped with radar imaging instruments, which can peer through the dense clouds and reveal the surface below.

From the many flybys and atmospheric probes sent into its thick clouds, scientists have learned that Venus’ atmosphere is incredibly dense. In fact, the mass of Venus atmosphere is 93 times that of Earth’s, and the air pressure at the surface is estimated to be as high as 92 bar – i.e. 92 times that of Earth’s at sea level. If it were possible for a human being to stand on the surface of Venus, they would be crushed by the atmosphere.

The composition of the atmosphere is extremely toxic, consisting primarily of carbon dioxide (96.5%) with small amounts of nitrogen (3.5%) and traces of other gases – most notably sulfur dioxide. Combined with its density, the composition generates the strongest greenhouse effect of any planet in the Solar System.

It is also the hottest planet in the Solar System, experiencing mean surface temperatures of 735 K (462 °C; 863.6 °F). 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 planet is also isothermal, which means that there is little 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 23.5° – and its very slow rotational period (the planet takes around 243 days to complete a single rotation) also minimizes seasonal temperature variation.

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

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; 716 °F) and an atmospheric pressure of about 4.5 MPa (45 bar).

Meteorological Phenomena:

The weather on Venus is one of the aspects of the planet under constant study from Earth-based telescopes and space missions to Venus. And from what we’ve seen, the weather on Venus is very extreme. The entire atmosphere of the planet circulates around quickly, with winds reaching speeds of up to 85 m/s (300 km/h; 186.4 mph) at the cloud tops, which 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. Spacecraft equipped with ultraviolet imaging instruments are able to observe the cloud motion around Venus, and see how it moves at different layers of the atmosphere. The winds blow in a retrograde direction, and are the fastest near the poles.

Closer to the equator, the wind speeds die down to almost nothing. Because of the thick atmosphere, the winds move much slower as you get close to the surface of Venus, reaching speeds of about 5 km/h. Because it’s so thick, though, the atmosphere is more like water currents than blowing wind at the surface, so it is still capable of blowing dust around and moving small rocks across the surface of Venus.

Over the past six years wind speeds in Venus' atmosphere have been steadily rising (ESA)
Over the past six years wind speeds in Venus’ atmosphere have been steadily rising (ESA

Several flybys past the planet 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. 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.

What is the weather like on Venus? Terrible, would be the short answer. The long answer is that it is extremely hot, the air pressure is extremely high, there are very strong winds, sulfuric acid rain (at higher altitudes) and lightning storms driven by volcanic eruptions. It is little wonder then why the only practical option for colonizing Venus involves creating  floating cities above the cloud layer.

We have written many articles about Venus for Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Venus, Interesting Facts About Venus, What is the Average Temperature of Venus?, New Map Hints at Venus’ Wet, Volcanic Past, Venus Possibly had Continents, Oceans, How Do We Terraform Venus? and Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities.

Want more information on Venus? Here’s a link to Hubblesite’s News Releases about Venus, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Venus.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s only about planet Venus. Listen to it here, Episode 50: Venus.

Sources:

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.