Monday, December 15, 2014

The Demystification of Venus


On this day in 1970, the Soviet lander Venera 7 achieved the first soft-landing on another planet, after a bumpy journey through the Venusian nightside atmosphere. For 23 minutes, the spacecraft described its surroundings, confirming what orbiters and flyby missions from both the USA and the USSR had feared: The planet that had been venerated as a paragon of celestial beauty for millennia was actually a nightmarish parody of all the hopes placed on it.

By the time the Venera and Mariner programs began exploring Venus, it had become burdened by thousands of years of high expectations. From being a symbol of fertility in ancient mythology to more modern characterizations of the planet as a tropical world, spurred by observations of its thick cloud cover, Venus had long been thought of as being hospitable to life.

Venera 7 quickly showed that not to be the case. With surface pressures 92 times those of Earth, temperatures of 887 degrees Fahrenheit, and a suffocatingly toxic atmosphere, Venus is a hellscape beyond human imagining. It takes the planet 243 Earth days to rotate once, and it does so clockwise, unlike any other planet in the solar system. This means that a Venusian day is longer than a Venusian year, and the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east. It is a thoroughly weird and disconcerting place.

Indeed, it’s a testament to the Soviets’ sophisticated planetary landers that Venera 7 was even able to withstand Venus’s harsh conditions for almost half an hour. The Soviets subsequent probes were equally impressive—Venera 13, for example, spent 127 minutes transmitting data back to Earth, even managing to capture a picture of the tortured surface.

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