Venus is a magnificent sight right now. It's well up in the southeast at first light, blazing as the "morning star."
And the bright planet is about to get a new visitor. A Japanese spacecraft known as Akatsuki -- Japanese for "dawn" -- is scheduled to enter orbit around Venus tomorrow. It'll join a European craft that's been orbiting the planet for five years.
Akatsuki will pay particular attention to Venus's hot, dense atmosphere. It consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide, and surface temperatures are more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit. And it's topped by thick layers of clouds made of sulfuric acid.
One of the mysteries Akatsuki will investigate is winds at the top of the atmosphere. They blow at more than 200 miles an hour -- about 60 times faster than Venus rotates on its axis -- and no one knows why.
It'll also study lightning in the planet's clouds. On Earth and other worlds, lightning is produced by the motion of water molecules. But there's almost no water in Venus's atmosphere. The new probe will try to spot lightning as it happens, and measure the composition of the clouds that produce it. That'll help explain what's powering it.
And finally, the craft will peer through the clouds to look for active volcanoes on the surface. Volcanoes are found all across Venus, but so far, none has been seen erupting. Akatsuki hopes to change that -- giving us a better understanding of our beautiful but deadly neighbor.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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