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Moon and Venus

June 19, 2015

For the first time in almost a decade, we don’t have any eyes or ears at Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Europe’s Venus Express expired late last year, ending eight years of studying the planet.

Venus was the first planet to receive a visitor from Earth, when Mariner 2 flew past it in 1962. Since then, about 20 missions by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe have successfully studied it.

Venus is a tough world to get to know because it’s blanketed by clouds that hide the surface from view. Several Soviet probes landed on Venus, but they quickly expired under the searing heat and crushing pressure.

Several other missions used radar to peer through the clouds from orbit around Venus. The most successful was Magellan, which spent four years compiling a detailed map of the planet’s surface.

Venus Express didn’t have radar, but it did provide several important insights into the planet’s atmosphere — and its past. It found that Venus once had oceans of liquid water on its surface, for example, and that lightning frequently sparks through the clouds.

The break in Venus observations might not last long, though. A Japanese mission that failed to enter orbit around Venus five years ago will get a second chance when it swings by Venus again this December.

And you can easily observe Venus on your own tonight. It’s the brilliant “evening star,” low in the west at nightfall. It stands above the crescent Moon.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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