The 2nd Rock from the Sun Day Thread

Look, I’m going to level with you: I gave blood on Wednesday, and I think they took too much. It turns out I needed that blood. I’ve spent the last two days feeling like I’m about to fall over. But I signed up for this day thread, and by God you people are going to hear about Venus.

Right now, in the city of Laurel, Md., the Venus Exploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) is on the final day of a three-day annual meeting. I’m nowhere near there; I’ve been following along on Twitter. They could be plotting how to kill James Bond for all I know. But the tweets I’ve been seeing suggest a community that is rallying in the face of a big setback.


(The VEXAG webpage has since been redesigned for the better, but I love their old logo.)

The Venus research community wants people to care about Venus. That this is a losing proposition with the general public might be expected. But it’s also been a losing proposition with NASA.

Venus, if you’ve never been there, is a pressure cooker world. It’s 900°F all the time, everywhere, because the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. Its surface is completely obscured from pole to pole by clouds. At one time, these were thought to be water vapor, and the surface was imagined to be a hot-but-bearable swamp. As it turns out, the clouds are sulfuric acid, and the surface pressure is equivalent to one mile under the ocean.


(Mariner 2’s observation path of Venus.)

In NASA’s Mariner Program of the 1960s and 70s, Venus initially stood in equal rank to Mars for places to throw spacecraft at. But the Mariner probes revealed a world hundreds of degrees hotter than the highest previous estimates. Mars turned out to be a frozen gravel pit, but at least it was a place you could imagine humans standing.

Venus was slowly edged out of the spotlight by less terrible planets. NASA’s last mission to Venus was a radar-mapping orbiter called Magellan. Magellan was a fascinating junk-drawer spacecraft, cobbled together out of spare parts made for the Voyager program, the Galileo Jupiter probe, the Ulysses solar orbiter, and Mariner 9. It was launched in 1989 and deorbited in 1993, an event NASA heralded with this delightful graphic, which I wish I could find a better copy of:


(With the radar maps completed, Magellan was put to work in a series of dip experiments to test the resistance of the atmosphere. NASA eventually let the atmosphere keep it.)

And NASA has never gone back. Scientific spacecraft are approved and funded through programs with different budgets. The Venus community was crestfallen back in January when, with two Venus missions in the five finalists for the mid-budget Discovery program, NASA chose two asteroid missions instead. Some of the discussions at the VEXAG meeting have been about the next round of pitches, for the top-tier New Frontiers program. Will 2019 be their year? The tweets from VEXAG 2017 are hopeful.

  • There may have been life on Venus, once. There may be life on Venus now, high, high up in the clouds, where the temperature and pressure become almost Earthlike.
  • Sue Smrekar – a very nice researcher I’ve actually spoken to – has a new pitch for a craft called VOX, the Venus Origins eXplorer. (All proposed Venus spacecraft seem to end up with weird acronyms built around the letter V.)
  • The Soviet Union had a fascination with Venus, and flew a number of missions there in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The Russians, with help from NASA, want to go back, although it’s not clear how well that joint project (Venera-D) is going.

After a lot of false starts, the USSR got working cameras down to the surface. These returned eerie, low-res pictures. The color ones are nice, but I really like the black and white ones. They look like something you’d find on a GameBoy Camera inside a cursed house.


(My friend’s brother says he had a cousin who went to Venus and NEVER CAME BACK.)

Something else I stumbled on – but can’t verify – is a YouTube video that claims to be the audio from the landing of Venera 14. As of this writing it has 216 views, and I have no idea who uploaded it. At least some of the Venera craft did have microphones, but I once spent hours trying to find audio before giving up, only to have this pop up much later by chance. Please enjoy the haunting sounds of communist machinery on an alien world.

Venus is under-studied for what it is: the planet closest to Earth, the planet most like Earth in size, and the type of planet Earth will become when the sun heats up and expands. Don’t get too sad about that. We may yet make it on Venus, and that means we can make it anywhere.