Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Venus is a Hot Planet. Oh, and the Temperature at the Surface is also Pretty High

False-color image of Venus' clouds taken by the Venus Express spacecraft

 Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
   Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
  Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
      And fruitful lands—for all of living things
        Through thee alone are evermore conceived
-Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century BCE); 
translation by William Ellery Leonard

Venus. I've long argued that, of all the planets and all the worlds in our solar system outside of Earth, Venus is the most likely to have once had life. Stress the "once" there, for sure. Where Venus may have once had a biosphere, it's now a world obscured by clouds, overriding a dense atmosphere, and the surface is hotter than a pizza oven. Seriously, the surface of Venus is over 863o Fahrenheit! That's a scorcher for sure.

I'm not going to just drop a lot of facts about Venus on you (you can find such stuff on the NASA and Wikipedia pages for Venus), though I definitely recommend watching this short SciShow video on what it's like on Venus:

Venus definitely hasn't been getting the press it deserves of late. So much of our solar system exploration in the public mindset has been focused on Mars and Europa. Although I adore Mars and icy worlds like Europa are important for my graduate research, Venus is too close and too interesting for us to not get excited about that planet's history. That said, something has just popped up recently: the HAVOC (the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept) mission concept design has recent;y made its way around the interwebs. HAVOC, a concept that was developed by NASA's Space Mission Analysis Branch, is an idea of the possible future human exploration of Venus by using high-altitude balloons (thinking long-term, something like the Cloud City of Bespin but here in our own solar system). If you're into the future of human space exploration, Venus, or even the freaggin' awesome idea of exploring other worlds in balloons, then check out this video from NASA:

Pretty cool, huh?! I'd gladly volunteer to be an early explorer in a cloud city on Venus.  

But why would we want to build a cloud city on Venus? What would be the return? I recently gave a guest lecture for a friend's class at Front Range Community College. We ended the class in a large discussion about the costs and benefits of sending humans to Mars. One student highly questioned the pay-off for human exploration, especially since any reward for exploration (outside of the satisfaction of our human curiosity and urge to explore) must be long-term (i.e. technology and resource development) or seems untenable (e.g. expanding our Earth's biosphere to avoid potential full-scale extinction). I've heard these arguments before and, although I will always argue the opposite in favor of human exploration and colonization of space, we must consider the costs and benefits at all steps in our endeavors. 

Sending humans to Venus (especially building cloud cities) would obviously be expensive, but Venus is too intriguing to be left alone. Outside of the long term payoffs of exploration, like building new technologies and preparing for a future as residents of the entire solar system, I think we have a lot to learn from Venus. For instance:


  • Planets with runaway greenhouses and hostile surfaces like our Venus may be quite common in the universe, so Venus may be a good testbed for our future studies of such exoplanets.
  • Venus has a storied history in human culture and understanding. Once known as the Morning and/or Evening Star, Venus is the brightest object in our night's sky after the Sun and the Moon (barring supernovae and meteors).
  • Venus may have once been home to an alien biosphere. This is something I've been suggesting for a long time. Due to the similarities between Earth and Venus, I find it likely that Venus had the best shot in the early solar system of also forming life (far more than Mars). But, who mourns for life on Venus? This concept is not often discussed, since many people believe that any signs of such ancient Venusian are no longer remnant. Still, as the cosmobiologist, I'm intrigued by Venus and I want to see humans go there to explore. 

Venus is definitely a hot planet. But don't take my word for it: check out this music video on the "Hot Planet" from Distant Vantage Media Labs

Need some more information about our exploration of Venus? Check out this list of all of the spacecraft that we have sent to Venus.

Also, check out this related blog post from my friend, Julia DeMarines, at Pale Blue Blog on Astrobiology Magazine.

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