The shroud of thick clouds veiling the surface of Venus have been lifted off – thanks to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The astonishing observations reveal a planet marked by continents, flat expanses and extensive highlands. These features have never been seen before in the visible spectrum of light, a feat achieved only through a series of stealth flybys of the night side of the planet.
What’s up – In an article published Wednesday in the journal Geophysical Physical LettersNASA scientists and others connected to the Parker Solar Probe mission explain how they managed to catch unprecedented glimpses of Venus – and what those stolen glances reveal.
“Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky, but until recently we didn’t have much information about what the surface looked like because our view is blocked by a thick atmosphere,” Brian Wood said in a statement. Wood is the lead author of the new study and a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
“Now we finally see the surface in visible wavelengths for the first time from space.”
The images reveal a diverse topography – highlands and lowlands, landmasses and more curious geographic features ready to be explored. The data also helps confirm that Venus is 735 Kelvin on its surface – 863.33 Fahrenheit. Incredibly, scientists are also reporting emissions similar to an earthly wonder: the aurora.
How they did — The surface of Venus has been photographed before, but in other wavelengths of light than the human eye can see. Typically, Venus appears in visible light as a pearl, mysteriously featureless and totally opaque. The lack of telltale details about what lurks on the planet’s surface is linked to the thick sulfuric acid clouds and carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere that blanket the planet in a toxic haze.
Only a small red light manages to escape from these clouds – but it is usually lost as sunlight bounces off the thick Venetian clouds, drowning out the red light in noise. At night, Venus is still so hot, there is a faint glow radiating from it, but no sun for that red light to compete with. By imaging the planet during its night, the Parker Solar Probe was able to see more detail of Venus’ surface in the visible spectrum from space than any mission has ever achieved before.
“The surface of Venus, even on the night side, is about 860 degrees,” Wood explains in the statement. “It’s so hot that the rocky surface of Venus glows visibly, like a piece of iron from a forge.”
The Parker Solar Probe is meant to study the Sun, and WISPR was designed to observe the solar atmosphere and wind – a capability that can apparently be applied to clouds like those shrouding Venus. Except that WISPR saw beyond the surface of the planet itself. The probe took the images during two flybys, conducted en route to study the Sun, on July 11, 2020 and February 20, 2021. The images were taken with the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe instrument.
“The images and the video just blew my mind,” Wood said in the statement.
Why is it important – Revealing the surface of Venus in a new light is not only a watershed moment for space science, it also gives scientists crucial details about our neighboring planet. This data can help inform future science missions to explore Venus and help us understand the evolution of the planet. There is a theory that Venus was once an analogue of Earth – an ominous example of a planet that was once potentially habitable and is now suffocated by its own greenhouse gases.
The images also confirm past observations made using radar and infrared instruments, showing regions like Aphrodite Terra to the human eye without the aid of image processing. For example, here is a WISPR image of Venus, showing a mountainous region in darker gray near the center of the orb:
And here is the same view, but this time the image was taken by NASA’s previous Magellan mission. Here, the highlands region is shown in false color. Together, these observations reveal the diverse topography of the planet:
And after – These new images prepare the ground for two major projects: VERITAS and DAVINCI. These missions, planned as part of NASA’s next decade of scientific exploration, will observe Venus alongside ESA’s EnVision mission. Together, the three will uncover new details about the evolution of Venus and help explain why its atmosphere is so thick and noxious.
“By studying the surface and atmosphere of Venus, we hope that future missions will help scientists understand how Venus evolved and what has made Venus inhospitable today,” says Lori Glaze, director of the Division of NASA Planetary Science, in the release. .
In the meantime, the Parker Solar Probe is moving forward. Its next two flybys of Venus won’t offer as bright an opportunity to see the night side of Venus, but it will have one last chance to survey the planet’s surface during its seventh loop after the planet in November 2024. We have I can not wait to see him .