Venus

Cloud-covered Venus is the second planet from the Sun, and passes closer to Earth than any other planet. Even so, Venus remained shrouded in mystery until the Space Age because the clouds hide its surface from view. Early planetary scientists envisioned a lush world of oceans, constant rains, and abundant life. Yet the reality is far different: Venus is hot, dry, and totally unsuitable for life.

Venus

Venus At a Glance

Discovery

Known since antiquity

Name

Roman goddess of love

Average Distance from Sun

67,237,910 miles
108,208,930 km
0.723 Astronomical Unit

Mass

0.815 times Earth's mass

Equatorial Diameter

7,521 miles
12,104 km

Length of Day

243 Earth days (retrograde)

Length of Year

0.62 Earth years
224.7 Earth days

Surface Gravity

0.91 that of Earth (If you weigh 100 pounds, you would weigh about 91 pounds on Venus.)

Known Moons

None

The Venusian clouds kept astronomers from seeing the planet's surface. Without visible landmarks, they could not measure how fast Venus turns on its axis. It took cloud-penetrating radar, first aimed at Venus in the early 1960s, for scientists to discover that Venus rotates backward as compared to the other planets in the solar system. This means that the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east. And Venus' rotation is extremely slow, so the length of a "day" on Venus is longer than a year.

The planet's "retrograde" rotation could be the result of a collision between Venus and a large proto-planet billions of years ago, when the solar system was forming.

Early spacecraft discovered that Venus' atmosphere is thick and toxic. It is made primarily of carbon dioxide, with a surface pressure 90 times greater than on Earth -- equivalent to the pressure at a depth of more than a half-mile (900 meters) below the surface of the ocean. Clouds of sulfuric acid, blown by high-speed winds, top the atmosphere.

This dense atmosphere makes Venus the hottest planet in the solar system. The atmosphere absorbs the Sun's heat but doesn't allow it to escape. This "greenhouse effect" has heated Venus' surface to about 860 degrees Fahrenheit (450°C) — hot enough to melt lead.

The first views of the surface came from four Soviet landers, each of which survived for only a few minutes before succumbing to the heat and pressure. The images showed flat, angular rocks around the landers, but not much else.

The best view of Venus came from the Magellan spacecraft, which entered orbit around Venus in 1990. Its cloud-penetrating radar mapped 98 percent of the planet's surface. Magellan discovered mountains on Venus that are taller than any on Earth, as well as a valley that is the longest and deepest in the solar system. Thousands of volcanoes dot the Venusian surface. Magellan provided hints that some of them may still be active, but it did not detect any eruptions. Magellan's observations suggest that the planet's entire surface was repaved by global volcanic eruptions about 800 million years ago.

The only impact craters detected on Venus are large. The surface lacks smaller craters because small meteoroids burn up in the planet's thick atmosphere before they hit the ground.

Although Venus is completely dry today, a spacecraft in the 1980s found evidence that the planet could have been much wetter in the distant past. In fact, it might have had enough water to cover the entire planet to a depth of 50 feet or more.

Scientists think Venus' interior is a lot like Earth's, with an iron-nickel core surrounded by a rocky mantle. But unlike Earth, Venus does not have tectonic plates or a magnetic field.

Viewing Guide

The brilliant morning or evening star starts 2014 in the evening sky, but moves to the morning sky by mid-January, where it remains through summer. It returns to the evening sky by year’s end.

Exploration

The Soviet Venera 9 became the first spacecraft to transmit pictures from the surface of another planet when it touched down on Venus in 1975. And in a mission that began 15 years later, the American Magellan orbiter used cloud-penetrating radar to map more than 98 percent of Venus' surface. Its images revealed hundreds of volcanoes, giant lava flows, cracked domes of volcanic rock, and long canyons. Europe's Venus Express made extensive measurements of the planet's atmosphere, discovering that lightning crackles in some of the clouds and making many other observations.

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