Venus symbolizes femininity, beauty, and love. It is the twin planet to Earth, our world of vast green forests, deep blue seas, and majestic snow-capped mountains. Venus was formed at about the same time as Earth of the same type of material. It’s almost the same size as Earth and it is the planet closest to Earth. It is the second planet from the sun, the third brightest object in our sky after the Sun and the moon. Shining brightly near the horizon, it dazzles stargazers and inspires poets.
Close-up and personal, Venus must be heavenly – right? Not exactly. Hot and dry with an atmosphere that would choke an earthling to death – that’s Venus. The atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide, dioxide, nitrogen, water vapor, argon, carbon monoxide, neon, and sulfur dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the largest component of the atmosphere. Sulfuric acid is the largest component of the thick clouds that cover the planet so well that not even the largest earthbound telescope can gaze upon its surface. While keeping prying eyes out, the clouds keep the heat in. Temperatures reach 870 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt lead. Venus’ intolerable heat also discourages visitors by vaporizing them. Venera 13, a Russian Lander, holds the record as the surface visitor to last the longest. It operated for 127 minutes before being vaporized by the inhospitable planet.
Many other attempts have been made to investigate Venus in the form of unmanned spacecraft that journeyed to our sister planet. As mentioned, those that dared land on the planet met a quick demise. Venera 13 transmitted the first color pictures of the surface of Venus before it ceased functioning. NASA’s Magellan Spacecraft orbited Venus from 1990 to 1994 using radar imaging to map 98% of its surface. The European Space Agency’s Venus Express arrived in orbit around the planet in 2006, and is currently studying its atmosphere and surface characteristics (this led to a recent discovery mentioned below).
Vast smooth plains cover about 65% of the surface. There are thousands of volcanoes ranging in all sizes from an extremely small half mile across to an extremely large 150 miles across. Of the six mountainous ranges, the highest range is Maxwell, which is seven miles high and 540 miles long. There are also circular structures called coronae or crowns that were formed when hot material from inside the planet bubbled up to the surface. The diameter of a crown varies from 95 to 365 miles.
And get this. According to a recent report in National Geographic, Venus is spinning even slower than astronomers originally thought, according to new data from a European space probe. In the early 1990s scientists with NASA’s Magellan mission calculated that a single rotation of Venus takes 243.015 Earth days, based on the speed of surface features passing beneath the orbiting spacecraft. If you’re paying attention and you do the math, you will see that a day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus! However, while Venus slowly spins, it manages to make a pretty quick trip around the Sun. Earth makes its yearly trip around the Sun in 365 days; Venus does it in only 224 earth days.
Anyhow, scientists now mapping Venus’s surface with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter were surprised to find the same features up to 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) from where they were expected to be, based on the previous measurements. According to the new data, Venus is rotating 6.5 minutes slower than it was 16 years ago, a result that’s been found to correlate with long-term radar observations taken from Earth.
Another point to think about. Venus may now resemble what Earth will become in millions of years time. When our Sun expands thereby heating the Earth, all of its surface water will be turned into a vapor thus trapping sunlight and heat in the atmosphere. The result will include suffocating conditions like those found on Venus today.
So now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Venus is strange.” And you would be right. It gets stranger. Venus is a contrary planet, no doubt about it. If you were to awaken on Venus in time to enjoy the sunrise over the barren lava plains to the east, you would be out of luck. However, if you were facing west, you would see the sun rise. Yes, that’s right. Old contrary Venus spins from west to east – the opposite direction of earth and the other planets in our solar system. This is called retrograde rotation.
You probably want to know why. Here are the four answers proffered by astronomers today. Take your pick:
A) Venus was hit by a very large object that changed the direction of its spin;
B) The Sun’s gravitational pull messed with the heavy clouds of Venus. Eventually, this caused the entire planet to flip over on its axis. Therefore, it is still spinning in the same direction as the other planets. It appears to be spinning in the opposite direction because it is upside down;
C) The Sun’s gravitational pull messed with the heavy clouds of Venus. However, it didn’t turn it upside down; it just reversed its spin;
D) Or my personal favorite – no one really knows!
Here again is the question posed by the title: Venus – beautiful, deadly, strange or fascinating? The answer: Absolutely!
Image Credit: European Space Agency.
A. Moullet, E. Lellouch, R. Moreno, M. Gurwell, & H. Sagawa (2012). Wind mapping in Venus’ upper mesosphere with the IRAM-Plateau de Bure interferometer Astronomy & Astrophysics DOI: arXiv:1202.5279v1
Costantino Sigismondi (2012). Solar diameter with 2012 Venus transit Fourth French-Chinese meeting on Solar Physics Understanding Solar Activity: Advances and Challenges DOI: arXiv:1201.4011v1
Major, J. (2012, February 14). Venus Spinning Slower Than Thought-Scientists Stumped. National Geographic. Retrieved February 25, 2012, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120214-venus-planets-slower-spin-esa-space-science/