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Venus Express Survived Its Dive!

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Illustration of ESA’s Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere (ESA)

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.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

The Glory of Venus

A rainbow-colored "glory" in Venus' atmosphere seen by ESA's Venus Express

A rainbow-colored “glory” in Venus’ atmosphere seen by ESA’s Venus Express

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…

Read the rest of this entry

Venus Has a Surprisingly Chilly Layer

The Blank Face of Venus (NASA/Gordan Ugarkovic)

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.

Read the rest of this entry

Daytime Moon, Hello Venus!

Saturday Feb .25 brought a view of the Moon and Venus. (J. Major)

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.

Read the rest of this article here

A Varying Venusian Vortex

Animation of Venus' southern polar vortex made from VIRTIS thermal infrared images; white is cooler clouds at higher altitudes.

Our neighboring planet Venus really is a world of extremes; searing surface temperatures, crushing air pressure, sulfuric acid clouds…Venus pretty much pushes the envelope on every aspect of rocky-planet existence. And now here’s one more thing that made scientists do a double-take: a shape-shifting vortex swirling around Venus’ south pole!

The presence of a cyclonic storm around Venus’ poles – both north and south –  has been known since Mariner 10′s pass in 1974 and then afterwards during the Pioneer Venus mission when a downwardly-spiraling formation of clouds over the planet’s north pole was imaged in infrared. It wasn’t until ESA’s Venus Express orbiter arrived in 2006 that the cyclone at the south pole was directly observed via the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) instrument…and it proved to be much stranger than anything previously expected. Read the rest of this entry

From the LITD Archives: But What About Venus?

Originally posted on April 7, 2009, only two months after Lights in the Dark launched:

Venus in Infrared

Venus in Ultraviolet

I haven’t posted anything yet about our other neighboring planet, Venus, mostly because the currently active mission exploring it, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter, hasn’t been updating much with new images since I’ve begun this site. Still, Venus deserves some attention, so here’s a quick byte of Venus info.

Artist's Concept of Venus

Artist's Concept of Venus

Possibly the most inhospitable of planets in our solar system, the “evening star” Venus is permanently enshrouded by thick yellowish-beige clouds. In order to see any cloud structure at all, images must be made in other wavelengths of light….infrared, or ultraviolet (above). In these wavelengths invisible to our eyes, the swirling structures of Venus’ atmosphere can be made out. And what an atmosphere it is! An example of greenhouse effect to the nth degree, our neighboring Venus is a virtual oven…its scorched, rocky surface baked by 800ºF + temperatures beneath the crushing weight of its own incredibly dense atmosphere, standing “sea level” on Venus would be like being hundreds of feet underwater, just in terms of pressure per square inch. And if the heat and pressure weren’t enough, the skies are full of clouds made of corrosive sulphuric acid as well, lit by bolts of lightning and and whipped by incredible planet-wide winds clocked in the hundreds of miles per hour. All Earth-based probes that landed there (such as the Soviet Venera-13, seen below) only lasted moments on the surface before they succumbed to Venus’ destructive environment.

Venus from Venera-13

Venus from Venera-13

Venus is, quite literally, a hellish place. And, oddly enough, it is the planet that most resembles Earth, in terms of size and composition. It’s an example of how being just that much closer to the sun, without the benefit of any carbon-dioxide processing life forms like Earth has developed, drastically changes an entire planet. I may not be the most militant tree-hugger but I do realize the unmistakable effect plant life has on our world. Venus shows us what Earth could have been. Quite easily. And very well could still become. And that’s why the ESA’s Venus Express mission is so important.

More images from the Venus Express mission here.

Image credit: ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Venera-13 image remapped by Don P. Mitchell.

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Update: check out this great article on Venus by Robert Lamb, posted today March 22, 2011!

 

Like Ships in the Night

 

Akatsuki's image of a crescent Venus

So close, but yet so far.

In a poignant farewell, Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft returned this image of Venus as it sped off into space, its attempt at establishing orbit having failed on Wednesday, December 8. The $300 million scientific observatory was created to study the atmosphere of our neighboring planet, as well as use its specially-designed cameras to pierce Venus’ opaque sulfuric-acid clouds to search for volcanoes and other surface features. After making the five-and-a-half month journey to Venus, Akatsuki’s orbital insertion did not go as planned and it soon became evident that the spacecraft had missed its mark, with no chance of another attempt anytime soon. Very sad.

“To have a perfectly functioning spacecraft with all those great instruments make it all that way across the depths, and then because of some problem with a 12 minute operation, to go sailing off back into the blackness…”

– David Grinspoon, American participant on the Akatsuki team

JAXA mission scientists are hopeful that, with fully-functioning thrusters on Akatsuki, they do have a good chance to “try again” in six years, when the positioning of the spacecraft and Venus may allow for it. Until then, all anyone can do is wait and stay hopeful.

Read more on The Planetary Society’s blog.

Image: ISAS / JAXA.

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