Venus is not a nice place to visit. It's the hottest planet in the solar system, and its thick atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. But a discovery made 50 years ago today kept alive the chance that Venus might be teeming with life.
After taking off from the Black Hills of South Dakota, Malcolm Ross and Charles Moore were whisked to an altitude of more than 15 miles by a balloon. Their mission -- Strato-Lab 4 -- was designed to test their reaction to high-altitude flight, and to measure mysterious cosmic rays.
But they also carried a 16-inch telescope to study the infrared glow from Venus's clouds.
It took Ross and Moore a while to get their observations. Their launch was delayed, so Venus was out of sight by the time they reached their final altitude. So they had to wait many bitterly cold hours for a second chance.
And when they got their second chance, their small gondola spun around every time they moved. But finally, in the wee hours of November 29th, 1959, they managed to get Venus in their sights. They recorded several minutes of data, then dropped to a bumpy landing in Kansas.
Their observations revealed water vapor in Venus's upper atmosphere, raising the prospect of more water below the clouds -- which aren't made of water, by the way.
Alas, though, just three years after Strato-Lab 4, the first spacecraft flew past Venus. It discovered that the planet is dry and blistering hot -- a world to avoid.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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