Category Archives: Venus
NASA, SpaceX, Mars One… all (and others) are actively working on plans to send humans to the surface of Mars at some time within the next few decades. And while the first human exploration of the Red Planet will be a truly momentous and historic event in whatever fashion it ends up being – it will involve the first steps people make on another planet, after all – getting humans safely to the surface of Mars and back will certainly not be a simple task… we still have yet to venture farther than our own Moon, after all.
To help develop the technologies needed and work out the logistics of traveling to Mars, NASA is proposing an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would be sort of a “midpoint” in human spaceflight beyond Earth. The exact details of ARM won’t be nailed down until next year, but in essence it will involve getting a small asteroid or a piece thereof into orbit around the Moon, where it can be examined and sampled by astronauts. But while ARM will certainly assist in practicing for advanced deep space missions, some NASA engineers are suggesting that we could do better, actually putting humans if not on at least above another planet with airships soaring the skies of Venus.
Launched in 2005, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express successfully entered orbit around our cloud-shrouded neighboring world. Now, after more than eight and a half years of scientific observations Venus Express has run out of fuel and will soon go gentle into that good night – that is if by “going gentle” you mean death-diving into the corrosive, sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere of an intensely overheated planet.
“While we are sad that this mission is ended, we are nevertheless happy to reflect on the great success of Venus Express as part of ESA’s planetary science program and are confident that its data will remain important legacy for quite some time to come.”
— Martin Kessler, Head of ESA Science Operations
Having made over 3,000 orbits of Venus over the past eight years, ESA’s Venus Express has (as of May 15) completed its science mission and is now in the final few months of its operational life. With a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, the spacecraft recently made a daring and risky dive down into the upper layers of the planet’s thick atmosphere, coming within 80 miles of Venus’ broiling surface on July 12 — that’s the closest any human-made spacecraft have gotten to Venus since the Soviet Vega balloon-and-lander missions of 1985!
As dangerous as it may have been for the spacecraft, Venus Express survived the encounter and grabbed some valuable data about the planet’s atmosphere along the way. It’s now working its way up to a higher altitude orbit, but there’s no escaping the fact that its fuel reserves are nearly depleted and it will soon be back on its way down into Venus’ atmosphere on a mission-ending, one-way trip.
Oh, glorious Venus! How fragrant are your sulphuric skies! How your rainbow clouds do shimmer!
Actually the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of our neighboring planet would be anything but pleasant for humans, but ESA’s Venus Express orbiter did spot some iridescent hues as it flew over. The picture above, made from images acquired on July 24, 2011, show a circular “rainbow” effect known as a glory. It’s the backscattering of sunlight observed around the shadow point of an object when the Sun is directly behind it from the perspective of the observer (in this case, Venus Express itself.)
Glories are often seen here on Earth from aircraft (but sometimes even from the ground within banks of dense fog) and the mechanics of this one on Venus are pretty much the same — except that the composition of Venus’ clouds is very different, leading to a perfect opportunity for science! Read more…
Although similar in size to Earth, the planet-next-door Venus is typically perceived as a hellish inferno of caustic clouds, crushing pressures and kiln-like temperatures. And while those are indeed all very much the case, Venus has recently been found to have a cooler side too… although it’s 125 km (77 miles) up in its atmosphere.
What a weekend for sky gazing! As promised in Friday’s article on Universe Today, Venus was visible during the daylight hours this Saturday, very close to the crescent Moon. If you had clear weather you too may have been able to catch a glimpse of the scene above, photographed from my location in north Texas at 6:35 p.m. local time.