Venus for the Armchair Space Explorer

This is the Venus portion of a series of posts about Armchair Space Exploration. Amateurs can explore space - and contribute to science - from the comfort of their own homes or classrooms. I’ve collected links to resources that puts space into your own hands. (It *is* a work in progress, so don’t be surprised if it changes over time)

Exploration of Venus

The Pioneer Venus Orbiter took this picture of Venus through an ultraviolet filter, letting scientists see details in the planet's global cloud cover. Credit: Nasa

Venus’ orbit closer to the Sun makes it a difficult subject for professional observatories which, combined with its thick layer of clouds, makes the second planet a difficult subject for professional observatories. And yet it had captured popular imagination almost as much as Mars. Venus is the most Earth-like world in the Solar System with 90% Earth gravity and a thick atmosphere. Ground-based astronomers had already determined that Venus was extremely warm but it took Nasa’s Mariner 2 fly-by mission in 1962 to show how bad things are.

While Nasa achieved first in the Venus part of the space race, the Soviet Union’s Venera and Vega missions produced the most varied observations. Dozens of orbiters, landers, and atmospheric balloons peeled back the veil on the cloudy planet to reveal sulphuric acid clouds, crushing atmospheric pressures, and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead (an important part of most electronics). 

Nasa’s Mariner flyby missions and the Pioneer Venus orbiter preceeded the arrival of the Magellan orbiter in 1990. Magellan’s synthetic aperture radar produced the most detailed map of Venus’ surface. Most recently Esa’s Venus Express orbiter completed a nine-year mission of atmospheric observations.

Jaxa’s Akatsuki spacecraft failed to enter orbit around Venus in 2010, but its mission planners will get a second chance at the end of this year. Failing that, no space agency has committed to sending another mission to Venus.

Space agencies don’t plan to send human missions to Venus either, but it isn’t a crazy idea. (Or at least not too crazy.) Fifty kilometers above the Venusian surface, the atmospheric pressure matches Earth at sea level. A balloon filled with breathable air would be as buoyant as a blimp on Earth. While Star Wars-like cloud cities aren’t on the horizon, Nasa has studied the human exploration Venus in airships.

Venus References

There are plenty of free resources for learning about Venus. Wikipedia, SolarViews, Nineplanets, and Nasa’s Solar System Exploration provide current facts and figures about Venus. Tagged articles from the Planetary Society and SpaceRef are good sources of the latest news and insider analysis.

The Nasa History Office provides a free online versions of some of its publications. The Guide to Magellan Image Interpretation originally published in 1993, reviews the spacecraft and its instruments before going on to describe the mission’s early science results. Ellen Stofan, one of the book’s editors, is now Nasa’s Chief Scientist. To see scientists’ understanding of Venus before the Magellan mission you can read Magellan: the Unveiling of Venus.

This gallery highlights some of the most recent books dedicated to Venus. All of them include discoveries made through the Magellan mission. Towards Understanding the Climate of Venus includes results from Venus Express in its review of the latest science, but it is priced for research libraries and professionals with expense accounts.

[Affiliate links support Small Steps to Space. You can always buy directly from your preferred bookseller.]

Pictures from Venus

Color image sent from the surface of Venus from the Soviet Union's Venera 13 lander. The thick atmosphere gives a strong yellow cast as it has filtered blue wavelengths from sunlight before it reaches the surface. Source: Nasa/NSSDC

The Soviet Union conducted the most extensive exploration of Venus - and was the only country to land instruments on the surface. Unfortunately the Russian government doesn’t do outreach as aggressively as Esa or Nasa. There are a few third-party websites that can give you more information. The Russian Space Web site provides the most comprehensive overviews of the 29 Soviet attempts to reach Venus. Don Mitchell has processed Venera and Vega images and makes them available on his Mental Landscape website.

Nasa’s National Space Science Data Center has summaries and some photo galleries from the world’s attempts to explore Venus. The space agency’s publicly released images are searchable in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetary Photojournal. Most of the Venus images are from the Magellan mission, but a few are from fly-bys of the Messenger and Galileo spacecraft.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory used radar data from the Magellan spacecraft to create this perspective view of 8-kilometer high Maat Mons, the largest volcano on Venus. The vertical scale has been exaggerated to details easier to see. The original monochrome data was colorized yellow to match images from the Venera missions. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Esa’s public site is the best source for media on Venus’s atmosphere. It has a gallery of press release images in addition to videos and wallpapers.

The polar vortex at Venus' south pole captured by Venus Express. As the planet's clouds streak across Venus at 400 km/hour, they converge at the poles and sink towards the surface. Credit: Esa/Virtis/INAF-IASF/Obs. de Paris-LESIA/Univ. Oxford

Education and Public Outreach

Nasa funds much of its public outreach and education programs through individual mission budgets. That approach keeps outreach efforts closely tied to the scientists and engineers involved with the program, fostering richer and more innovative programs. Unfortunately it also means outreach programs wither as mission budgets decline over time - and stop altogether once a mission ends.

Magellan arrived at Venus before the World Wide Web even existed. By the time it ended, Nasa had created a public Magellan website which no longer gets updated. It has background information about the spacecraft, the science objectives, and early science results. It also provides addresses (in the real world) where teachers could mail letters (written on paper) to request brochures, film strips, and other classroom resources (which aren’t available anymore). The Nasa Solar System Exploration site is now the space agency’s best resource for information about Venus and Venus-related classroom activities.

Esa provides information about Venus on the public Venus Express site. The University of Wisconsin also ran an outreach program for Venus Express. The program conducted occasional teacher workshops and developed classroom modules that let students use actual data from Venus Express to study the planet’s atmosphere. Not much has been updated since 2012.

Here are several open courseware, open online courses, and other options for learning about Venus:

Exploring Data from Venus

If you want to explore the full range of Venus images yourself, you can go old school with Sky & Telescope’s globe of Venus or get maps from the US Geological Survey.

The Nemesis Tesserae quadrangle is an area once flooded by volcanic depostis. Credit: USGS/Mikhail A. Ivanov/James W. Head, III 

Nasa relied on the USGS’s map-making experience to help plan the Apollo landings. USGS scientists have been mapping the Solar System ever since. The Astrogeology Science Center publishes several maps of Venus based on Magellan’s synthetic aperture radar and altimeter data. The Venus Global GIS Mapping Application is a web-based map of Venus that works much like Google or Microsoft’s online maps with the added feature of being able to overlay additional data from Magellan’s instruments.

Google Earth lets you wrap those maps into the third dimension. You can modify Google Earth to create a globe of Venus in your computer or tablet. Download the data from the University of Washington and follow UW’s instructions to load the data into Google Earth. The basemap and overlays let you see the footprint from Magellan’s instruments. It will also link back to the Orbital Data Explorer, a professional search tool planetary scientists use to find Nasa’s data.

All of Nasa’s planetary missions must store their data in the space agency’s archives. It gives scientists a one-stop shop to download the data they need for their research. Nasa goes one step further and lets anyone access its Planetary Data System. After all, the data belongs to the public whose taxes paid for them. Public access, however, doesn’t make the PDS is easy to use. It’s main purpose is to support scientists who conduct research rather than the curious public.

The USGS Planetary Image Locator Tool searches over 7,000 images from Nasa’s various fly-by missions. Magellan’s radar data is not part of the image archive, so most of the images are atmospheric. The most sophisticated search tools are hosted by the Planetary Data System’s subject nodes: the PDS Geosciences Node at Washington University supports the Orbital Data Explorer while the PDS Imaging Node at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory supports the Planetary Image Atlas. These require special image processing software and an understanding of the technical aspects of the Messenger spacecraft.

LunaServ is another alternative. Scientists at Arizona State University created it to view data from their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera since commercial software developed to analyze images of Earth didn’t work so well with images from other worlds. LunaServ now supports other planetary missions, including Magellan’s radar-based maps of Venus. It’s designed to run on Linux, but Mac owners who know how to “installing dependencies” can run the software as well. An online demo version doesn’t have many features, but it does switch quickly between maps of the terrestrial planets and the larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Esa also makes its planetary science data available to the public. The Esa Planetary Science Archive hosts all of the data from Venus Express. Thanks to Esa’s more centralized structure, there are fewer ways to search the PSA than there are for the PDS. Besides an FTP download option, Esa offers java-based tools, one map-based and a more advanced query-based option.

Armchair Exploration

Without any active outreach programs or third-party citizen science projects, there aren’t many structured ways for armchair amateurs to explore Venus.

The Astronomy Society of the Pacific created a classroom exercise that demonstrates he heliocentric model of the Solar System by tracking the changing phases of Venus. Their main guide (PDF) provides links to Internet connected educational observatories that students can use to collect their data. A more specific version (PDF) uses the Slooh robotic telescopes.

Oregon State University has a database of over 1,600 major volcanoes while the Lunar and Planetary Institute has a database of 900 impact craters. You can combine this with the mapping and reference sources to create your own comparisons of the Venusian surface.