NASA has captured the first visible light images of Venus’ surface from space

By chance, scientists photographed the surface of Venus from space for the first time.

Although the planet’s rocky body is hidden under a thick veil of clouds, telescopes aboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe have managed to capture the first visible-light images of the surface taken from space, researchers report. researchers in the Feb. 16. Geophysical Research Letters.

“We’ve never seen the surface through clouds at these wavelengths before,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said on February 10 during a live stream. on Twitter.

Although the Parker Solar Probe was designed to study the sun, it must make regular flybys of Venus. The planet’s gravity pulls on the probe, tightening its orbit and bringing it closer to the sun (SN: 01/15/21). These helpers from Venus helped the spacecraft make headlines when it became the first probe to enter the sun’s atmosphere (SN: 12/15/21).

The Parker Solar Probe moves around the sun in a highly elliptical orbit, as shown in this video. To tighten its loops and get closer to the blazing star, the probe slows down as it flies close to Venus, using the planet’s gravity as a brake.

It was during two such flybys in July 2020 and February 2021 that the probe’s WISPR telescopes captured the new images. While WISPR found the day side of Venus too bright to photograph, it was able to discern large-scale surface features, such as the vast mountainous region called Aphrodite Terra, through the clouds on the night side.

Clouds tend to scatter and absorb light. But certain wavelengths of light pass through, depending on the chemical composition of the clouds, says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study.

Although scientists knew such spectral windows existed in the thick sulfuric acid clouds of Venus, the researchers did not expect the light visible to human eyes to break through so intensely. And while WISPR was designed to study the sun’s atmosphere, its construction also allows it to detect that unexpected window of light in Venus’ clouds. “It was by chance that they had an instrument that could see through clouds,” says Byrne.

an animated GIF of composite images of Venus' surface displayed in grayscale
While flying past Venus in February 2021, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe captured visible light from the planet’s surface using the probe’s two WISPR telescopes – WISPR-0 (large box) and WISPR-1 (small box). ). Darker regions represent colder highlands, while lighter regions represent warmer lowlands.NASA, PLA, NRL

The photographs show a planet so hot it glows like red-hot iron, said Brian Wood, an astrophysicist at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and co-author of the paper, at the event on social networks.

“The bright and dark pattern you see is basically a temperature map,” he said – brighter regions are hotter and darker regions are colder. This model matches well with topographic maps previously produced from radar and infrared surveys. The highlands look dark and the lowlands look bright, Wood said.

The images come as NASA prepares to launch two missions to Venus (SN: 02/06/21). The new photographs, Wood said, “could aid in the interpretation of observations taken in the future from these new missions.”

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