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I’m Your Venus

The Goddess has returned!

No, no, not me.  Huh, that would be pretty egotistical of me, don’t you think?

No, I’m referring to the second planet from the Sun, Venus.  The only one of the eight major planets (or heck, even the original nine planets, for those who remember that) named for a female.  A goddess.  Specifically, the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

Now, if you’re at all familiar with Roman (or for that matter, Greek) mythology, you’ll know that Venus wasn’t actually all that much of a beautiful person.  In fact, the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods all seemed to be imbued with the worst traits of humanity, making the mythology surrounding them a set of torrid tales worthy of the steamiest nighttime television drama.

Well, Venus the planet seems to be suffering from the same problem.

Seen from Earth, Venus is the brightest object in our sky after the Sun and the Moon.  The planet shines brilliantly whenever it is in our sky, dazzling the eye and often seeming to make it move, jiggle, flash, or change color to the human eye, making it one of the more commonly seen “UFOs”.  It really is a beautiful sight, wondrous to behold.

But things change when you look a little closer.

Venus is actually a hellish world, permanently shrouded in clouds that do an incredible job of trapping the heat of the Sun, raising the surface temperatures to almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit.  And since that cloud deck never dissipates, neither does the heat.  The temperature is fairly steady, making both the daytime and the nighttime sides of the planet ludicrously hot.  If that wasn’t enough, sulfuric acid rains down from time to time, because who doesn’t like a little battery acid shower to cool things down, right?  Still not enough?  Two words: active volcanoes.  Venus is not a nice place.

What we know of this bizarre world has been gleaned from a few orbiters and even fewer surface landers.  The pressure at the surface of Venus is about 100 times higher than that here on Earth, so if the sulfuric acid didn’t corrode the lander into non-functionality, and the temperature didn’t melt the thing, the pressure would surely flatten it.  The landers that have visited the surface of Venus all perished rather quickly – the most impressive one lasting less than two hours.  But they did function for a little while, giving us our only glimpses into what it would be like to stand (okay, well, probably lie down, given the weight of all that atmosphere) on this truly alien world.

The surface of Venus, as seen by the Russian spacecraft Venera 13 (recolorized). Credit: NASA

Want to know more about Venus?  We’re going to be learning more in the next decade or two.  NASA has recently given the green light to two new missions to Venus – DAVINCI+ and VERITAS – returning to our next door neighbor world after many years of neglect.  Venus may be scary, but she’s also fascinating, and I can’t wait to learn more about what happened to create the nightmare scape of the planet that was once imagined to be covered in lush tropical forests by science fiction writers.

Don’t want to wait several decades to learn more?  Join us for another in our monthly series of virtual stargazing events on Facebook Live this coming Saturday, June 12, at 7:30pm.  We’ll be live on the Virginia Living Museum Facebook page to talk about Venus and a whole lot more.  See you then!

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