Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Beauty in the Beast

by Perry Pezzolanella

Scientists have been looking for an Earthlike planet around another star, but there is one world that is so close to us that it could be used to study the evolution and eventual fate of Earth. Venus is the closest planet to Earth and the closest in size and composition. It should have evolved into another, warmer version of Earth, but instead of steamy jungles and oceans it turned out to be an evil twin. Like a bad relative, it is rarely visited and turned down at nearly every chance to visit it.

Venus is such a hostile planet that it can scarcely be imagined. The surface is a vast desert of rolling uplands, rocky plains, sand dunes, majestic mountains and volcanoes, canyons grander than any on Earth, and craters scattered about. Venus would make a beautiful tourist attraction with such grand vistas, but there would be problems trying to enjoy it. The atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide, so breathing would be impossible, but the air is also laced with a sulfuric acid mist! Even worse is the weather one would encounter while vacationing on Venus. It is always cloudy with the Sun rarely shining through thinner patches of clouds, but even worse is the atmospheric pressure, which is 92 times Earth's, or about as crushing as being 3000 feet under the sea! The average surface temperature is 870 degrees Fahrenheit making the scenery shimmer and ripple in the slight, fiery 3-mile per hour breeze. There is no fear of rain falling in such intense heat as there is no water anywhere, and if it could rain, it would be sulfuric acid! A tourist would not be able to escape the heat at night nor at the poles as the thick atmosphere is extremely efficient in transporting the heat. A trip to the highest peak on Venus, Maxwell Montes, towering seven miles into the searing sky, offers some relief as it is only 650 degrees Fahrenheit with an atmospheric pressure only 33 times Earth's.

After cooling off in the mountains, a hardy (foolhardy?) tourist could not resist visiting the canyons. Venus has a lot of them and the most impressive is Diana Chasma, over one thousand miles long and nearly three miles deep. Standing on the rim and looking across and down is probably one of the most beautiful sceneries in the entire Solar System. At the rim it is a balmy 780 degrees Fahrenheit, but the hardy tourist should think twice about descending to the bottom of this or any other canyon. These low areas on Venus are the most hostile anywhere on the surface with temperatures just topping 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and air pressure 105 times Earth's! There is a lot of beauty and so much awe, but it will probably always be off limits to humans. Venus is such an inferno that the rocks may glow a dull red at night and is thought to be a possible cause of the Ashen Light, although not proven. The surface glow is probably just at the visual threshold of the human eye. Ashen Light is the dark side of Venus glowing faintly, usually reddish, as seen from Earth. Photographs of the wonders of Venus from the surface would make beautiful but monochromatic postcards. Every photo would be bathed in an orange light because the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere effectively absorbs the blue component of sunlight and scatters the red. It would be monotonous trying to do sightseeing at first, but they would adapt. If Venus had a normal atmosphere like Earth's the scenery would actually look dreary as everything would be various shades of gray with some black and brown. This is due to the highly volcanic nature of the surface. Venus was an extremely volcanic planet and may still have a few active volcanoes.

The Soviet Union had good luck landing on Venus and doing some scientific research, even returning photos from the surface like a true tourist. The scenery is indeed a rolling plain with rocks and distant hills all bathed in an orange light. The landers never lasted more than two hours, but the success of these probes was through creative and logical engineering. The landers were chilled to -100 degrees Fahrenheit prior to separation from the mother spacecraft and used large parachutes to slow down as they plunged towards their fiery fate, but the parachutes were cut loose high up and the landers were in free-fall all the way to the surface. The extremely thick atmosphere aided by an aerobraking disc surrounding the upper part of the lander made for a soft, safe landing. The fast free-fall was necessary because the lander had only so much time to survive in the searing heat and the Soviet scientists wanted to do research on the surface. The Venera 7-14 lander series along with Vega 1&2 all returned usable data and some returned photos. There were a few components and experiments that failed, including cameras, but the Soviet Union had an incredible lucky streak exploring Venus considering the hostile conditions. Mainly all of our knowledge about the surface is due to these missions. NASA has never attempted to land on Venus; the Pioneer Multiprobes were atmospheric probes and not designed to survive impact with the surface, although one did.

Nothing has landed on Venus since 1985, but that is about to change when once again Russia may upstage the U.S. It is not that the U.S. has no desire to do a Venus landing, it does, but Russia seems more motivated and dedicated. It is designing a lander mission called Venera D, which will be designed similar to the highly successful Venera landers of the 1970's & 1980's. It is funded and under development for a possible launch in 2018. Venera D will land in the rough regions known as tesserae. These areas are suspected to be the oldest and original landforms on Venus where most of the rest of the planet was resurfaced in a huge, volcanic upheaval around 500 million years ago. These ancient rocks may hold clues on how Venus formed, what went wrong, and how much water use to be on the surface. Atmospheric analysis by the European Space Agency's Venus Express orbiter has confirmed that Venus once had water on its surface. If life ever got started on Venus, the tesserae rocks would be the best chance to find any fossilized remains. The U.S. was developing a lander called SAGE (Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer) which would have landed on the slope of a suspected active volcano, Mielikki Mons. Unfortunately the mission lost out in 2011 to an asteroid sample return mission, so it is not known how soon the mission will fly, if ever. Both the U.S. and Russian missions would complement each other with Russia exploring the ancient surface and the U.S. exploring the youthful surface. For now, Russia intends to continue its dominance in exploring Venus.

There is beauty to be found in a planet that turned out to be an angry beast, hostile to all who dare to try to set foot on it. Even with such a hostile environment, one can still fully appreciate Venus as an awesome creation and a diverse member of the worlds around us.