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Unveiling Myriad Mysteries Of The Weird Venusian Atmosphere
Possessing both a rocky composition and a size similar to that of our own planet, for years Venus was erroneously characterized as “Earth’s twin”–but that was before astronomers learned the truth about the sinister nature of our unfortunate sister planet. Alas, this second planet from our Star, the Sun–as well as the planet closest to Earth in our Solar System–is the tragic victim of a devastating runaway greenhouse effect, that has transformed it into an Earth-size ball of hell. Shrouded in a thick veil of heavy, deadly clouds, this “evil twin” of our planet still harbors many alluring mysteries. In September 2014, underscoring the vast differences between Earth and its near-neighbor, astronomers released new research providing a peek at giant holes in the electrically charged layer of the Venusian atmosphere, called the ionosphere. These new observations point to a more complicated magnetic environment than previously thought–which in turn helps astronomers to better understand our neighboring weird sister planet!
Venus possesses a dense atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide that veils a parched, searing-hot rocky surface. In addition, pressures are so high on the Venusian surface that landers are smashed mercilessly within only a few hours after landing. Venus, with its eerie red glowing surface that is hot enough to melt lead, offers planetary scientists the opportunity to investigate a planet that is actually very alien to our own–despite its close proximity and similar surface composition. The mysterious giant holes in the Venusian ionosphere provide new insight into our weird-sister planet’s atmosphere, how this strange world interacts with the constant attack of solar wind from our Sun, and perhaps even what’s hidden deep within its mysterious core.
“This work all started with a mystery from 1978,” explained Dr. Glyn Collinson in a September 11, 2014 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Press Release. Dr. Collinson is of the GSFC in Greenbelt, Maryland, and is the first author of a paper on this work that is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
“When Pioneer Venus Orbiter moved into orbit around Venus, it noticed something very, very weird–a hole in the planet’s ionosphere. It was a region where the density just dropped out, and no one has seen another one of these things for 30 years,” Dr. Collinson added.
Earth’s Weird Sister!
Venus is a dazzling and beautiful “evening star” in the twilight of a late summer evening. It also shows phases like Earth’s own bewitching large Moon, and these phases are visible to observers who peer at Venus through their telescopes. On a clear Autumn twilight, Venus is the first planet that sky-watchers can see–it is even observable before sunset. As Venus travels in its path around our Star–inside our Earth’s own orbit–it alternates regularly from morning to evening sky, and back again. In the sky above Earth, Venus is a lovely sight, that sparkles like a fiery jewel in space. Venus spends about 9 1/2 months as a “morning star”–and about the same amount of time as an “evening star.”
This bewitching, bewildering behavior caused some ancient astronomers to erroneously believe that they were watching two entirely different “wandering stars”–as planets were designated very long ago. They named the “morning star” Phosphorus, for the harbinger of light in Greek mythology, while the “evening star” was named Hesperus, after the son of Atlas. The Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, was the first to realize that Phosphorus and Hesperus were really the same sparkling “wandering star.”
The bewildering behavior of Venus confused ancient observers, and it was not truly comprehended until the 17th century when Galileo Galilei started peering at Venus with his crude little telescope, called a spyglass, from the roof of his home in Italy.
Venus is a lovely, bright world–from a distance. However, closer studies have revealed a somewhat more inhospitable sister planet.
Like our own Earth, Venus orbits our Star within what is termed its habitable zone. The habitable zone is that comfortable “Goldilocks” region surrounding a star where liquid water can exist in its life-loving liquid phase. Where liquid water exists, there is the possibility for life as we know it to exist, as well. Alas, Venus is much hotter than it should be. The surface temperature on our weird sister planet soars to a searing-hot 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and Venus is actually hotter than Mercury–even though Mercury, which is the innermost planet in our Solar System, is much closer to our Sun than Venus.
Venus is situated at a distance from our Sun where its surface temperature should only reach about 212 degrees Fahrenheit–which is the boiling point of water. Alas, according to radio measurements taken from Earth, Venus sports the most broiling surface of any other planet in our Solar System!
Venus orbits our Star every 224.7 days. However, it takes Venus 243 days to twirl once around on its own axis. This basically means that one day on Venus is longer than its year! Perhaps, even more strangely, Venus rotates backwards in comparison to the other seven major planets of our Sun’s family. If observed from high above its north pole, Venus would be seen to be rotating clockwise.
If it were possible for an Earthling to stand on Venus’s eerie-red-glowing surface, our Star would rise in the West, travel slowly across the sky, and then finally set in the East. Of course, this is precisely the reverse of what occurs on Earth. The staggering surface pressure on Venus is approximately the same as being 900 meters under water.
But Venus is bone-dry. It does not harbor Earth’s oceans of life-sustaining liquid water–nor does it have our planet’s hospitable atmosphere. Venus is searing-hot and dry because of its runaway greenhouse effect. Venus’s runaway greenhouse effect keeps this Earth-size ball of hell’s extreme heat trapped at its surface.
A light drizzle was observed in the 1980s by the Soviet Union’s twin balloon probes, Vega 1 and Vega 2. However, this drizzle was not a pleasant pelting of tiny droplets of liquid water, but a terrible assault of rain made up of corrosive droplets of sulfuric acid.
Back in 1984, the Soviet Union had joined several other European nations to launch the twin Vega probes. The sister probes represented a technologically challenging and sophisticated space mission that landed a duo of balloons and landers on the bizarre, hell-like surface of Venus. The twin 3.5 meter-diameter balloons floated for almost two Earth-days in the strange Venusian atmosphere at approximately 55 kilometers above its glowing red surface. In marked contrast to the inhospitable surface below, the atmosphere of Venus is pleasant by Earthling standards. The pressure and temperature here are both similar to Earth’s, and there is also an adequate quantity of sunlight to shine in from above–and do a glittering, beautiful dance.
The carbon dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere is partly transparent to relatively short electromagentic wavelengths. This radiation, when it reaches the unlucky planet’s surface, is then absorbed by the rocks that are scattered all over, which then send the radiation back out again into the Venusian atmosphere–only this time at longer wavelengths. Carbon dioxide is much less transparent to thermal radiation. As a result, a large quanity of the radiation is simply dispatched right back down to the tortured surface of this tragic planet. First, the radiation is absorbed and then partially re-radiated by the carbon dioxide back down to the broiling Venusian surface. This means that a great quantity of the energy remains imprisoned within the Venusian atmosphere. This is the runaway greenhouse effect that is responsible for preventing Venus from becoming a habitable planet like Earth–despite their similarities.
Space probes visiting Venus have unveiled its mysterious, cloud-shrouded surface to the curious eyes of astronomers. The space probes revealed a world pockmarked by impact craters, and scarred by at least 1,600 active volcanoes–which are smaller than their counterparts on Earth. This weird sister of Earth shows extensive lava plains, vast highlands, and mountains.
The Venusian clouds, composed of sulfuric acid, have for years been suspected of pelting sulfuric acid raindrops down onto this tragic planet’s roasting surface.
Myriad Mysteries Unveiled
Dr. Collinson decided to hunt for signatures of the giant holes haunting the Venusian atmosphere by sifting through data derived from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Venus Express. The Venus Express, launched back in 2006, is currently in a 24-hour orbit around the poles of our Earth’s weird sister planet. This orbit carries it to considerably higher altitudes than that of the earlier Pioneer Venus Orbiter and, therefore, Dr. Collinson wasn’t sure whether he would be able to detect any signs of these very mysterious holes. However, even at those lofty heights, the same bizarre holes were seen! This detection indicated that the holes extended considerably further into the atmosphere than had been earlier known.
The newer observations also indicated that the holes are more common than previously realized. Pioneer Venus Orbiter only spotted the holes at a time of extreme solar activity, termed solar maximum. But the Venus Express data indicates that the holes can form during solar minimum, as well.
In order to interpret what is really going on in the strange Venusian atmosphere, it is necessary to acquire an understanding of how Venus interacts with its environment in space. This environment is dominated by a flood of protons and electrons–a hot, charged gas termed a plasma–which zip rapidly out from our Star. As this solar wind travels, it carries along with it embedded magnetic fields–which can affect charged particles as well as other magnetic fields that they meet up with along the way. Our planet is well-protected from this radiation by its own powerful magnetic field. Alas, Venus is bereft of such protection!
However, Venus does possess an ionosphere–a layer of the atmosphere that is heavily laden with charged particles. The Venusian ionosphere is pelted on the Sun-side of the planet by the relentless solar wind. As a result, the ionosphere, “like air rushing past a golf ball in flight”, is shaped to be a slender boundary in front of the planet and to stretch out into a long comet-like tail behind. As the solar wind assaults the ionosphere, it piles up like an enormous plasma traffic jam. This creates a slender magnetosphere surrounding Venus, although it is a much smaller magnetic environment than the one surrounding Earth.
Venus Express is equipped to measure this small magnetic field. As it zipped through the Venusian ionosphere holes, it picked up a jump in the field strength–while also detecting extremely cold particles flowing in and out of the mysterious holes. The cold particles were of a much lower density than generally observed in the ionosphere. The Venus Express observations indicate that instead of a duo of holes behind Venus, there are in reality two fat, long cylinders of lower density material extending from the planet’s surface far, far out into interplanetary space. Dr. Collinson believes that some magnetic structure likely causes the charged particles to be squeezed out of these regions–much like paste squeezed out of a tube.
What magnetic structure can create this weird effect? That is the question! Envision Venus as situated in the middle of a constant, merciless, and relentless solar wind. Now, imagine magnetic field lines emanating from our Star traveling toward Venus. The far sides of these lines then wrap around the planet leading to long straight magnetic field lines trailing out directly behind Venus!
However, such a scenario would situate the bottom of these tubes on the sides of Venus, not as if they were traveling straight up out of the surface. What would cause magnetic fields to wander directly in and out of the planet? Without additional information, it is extremely difficult to know for certain, but Dr. Collinson’s team came up with two potential models that could match these observations.
In one model, the magnetic fields do not halt at the edge of the Venusian ionosphere to wrap around the outside of the planet–but instead continue further.
“We think some of these field lines can sink right through the ionosphere, cutting through it like cheese wire. The ionosphere can conduct electricity, which makes it basically transparent to the field lines. The lines go right through down to the planet’s surface and some ways into the planet,” Dr. Collinson explained in the September 11, 2014 GSFC Press Release.
In this model, the magnetic field wanders unhindered directly into the uppermost layers of Venus. Ultimately, the magnetic field slams into Venus’s rocky mantle–assuming that the still mysterious interior of Venus is like Earth’s. This is actually a reasonable assumption because the two planets sport the same density, mass, and size–although it is by no means a proven fact.
A similar phenomenon does occur on Earth’s Moon, Dr. Collinson continued to explain. Earth’s Moon is primarily composed of mantle and has only a scanty–if any–atmosphere. The magnetic field lines emanating from our Sun slice right through the Moon’s mantle–and then pelt what is thought to be its iron core.
According to the second model, the magnetic fields from our Solar System do drape themselves around the Venusian ionosphere, but they bump into the pile up of plasma that is already at the back of the planet. As the two sets of charged material shake each other up, it causes the required magnetic squeeze in the perfect spot! In either model, areas of increased magnetism would flood out on either side of the tail, pointing directly in and out of the sides of Venus. Those regions of increased magnetic force may be what squeezes out the plasma and forms the mysterious long ionospheric holes.
Planetary scientists will continue to investigate what causes these mysterious holes. Confirming one theory or the other will, in turn, help them to understand this weird sister planet, so similar and yet so very, very different from Earth.
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