The planet Venus is just about anybody's concept of hell. It's hotter than an oven...the surface pressure is almost a hundred times that on Earth...and the atmosphere is toxic. Volcanoes may belch hot gas and rivers of molten lava. And it's all topped by clouds of sulfuric acid.
But that hasn't always been the case. Venus may never have been the Garden of Eden, but there's evidence that oceans of liquid water once covered its surface. The question is, what happened -- how did Venus turn into the hottest planet in the solar system?
A proposed Venus lander would look for the answer. It's called SAGE, and it's one of three missions that NASA's considering for the next launch in its New Frontiers program. The others would gather samples from the Moon or a rocky asteroid. NASA will announce the winner next year.
SAGE would be the first American attempt to land on Venus. During its descent, the craft would sample the composition of the atmosphere -- in part to hunt for clues to Venus's vanished oceans. On the surface, it would use a laser to measure the composition of the rocks. And it would snap pictures and chart the weather conditions. But it'll only survive for a few hours before it's destroyed by its journey into hell.
Venus is in good view right now -- it's the brilliant "morning star." Early tomorrow, it's to the left of the Moon. The star Spica and the planet Saturn line up above them. More about this lineup tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.