A much-romanticized sight, the ‘Morning Star’ is the second brightest object in the sky after the moon. At almost the same size as our little planet, Venus is often termed ‘our twin’. But unlike our docile blue sphere, this one is a veritable ‘Hell’ of volcanoes, acid clouds, searing heat and crushing air pressure. Much like the sirens of old, the beauty of the Goddess call would lead to certain death. A dire warning to humanity, Venus is the end result of global warming. We best take heed.
Discovery and History
Discovered as early as 650 BCE (but almost certainly witnessed before that,), accurate measurements of Venus by Mayan astronomers provided the basis for their calendar. Revered and romanticized by the Romans, Greeks, and Babylonians, the familiar bright light in the sky was held as the Goddess of Love. Due to a curiosity in its orbit, it could be seen in the morning and then night sky (at intervals of roughly 584 days.) This meant that for a long time the planet was thought to be two, given separate names of Vesper in the evening and Lucifer (bringer of light) in the morning.
Discovery of its phasic appearance (that is the shadow cast by the sun on its surface,), astronomers were able to support the idea of a ‘heliocentric’ solar system. That is a solar system where the planets, asteroids, Patrick Stewart etc., would orbit our Sun. It was, in fact, Galileo that made observations of Venus’ transit across the Sun that would guide fellow astronomers for centuries. Impenetrable clouds have made an observation of the surface by telescope impossible, so detailed examination has only been possible with recent technology.
Like any spited lover, Venus is dangerous. Read on to find out why.
Orbit, composition and character
The second planet from our Sun, Venus orbits in a retrograde fashion (opposite direction to Earth) in around 225 days. At its aphelion (furthest orbital distance) it sits around 109 million km from the Sun, and at 107 million km at its perihelion (closest orbital distance.) Unlike Mercury, which has a high orbital eccentricity, Venus’ orbit is almost a circle. This is due to its gravity and speed. This gives the planet an uncharacteristic calm on the solar scale as it silently dances a slow waltz with our Sun.
Every 584 days it is overtaken by our planet (imagine lapping a colleague on a race track.) This means that the planet moves from ‘in front of us’ to behind us. In real terms this shifts it from the night sky to the morning, giving rise to the illusion of being two planets. Many names are given to the illusory twins, but both remain a familiar sight in our sky. From Central America, where I sit now, Venus is the first visitor to the night sky after the moon.
Venus has a radius of approximately 6051km, which is almost the same as Earths. Its mass is also similar, at 4.87 x 1024 kg 3. It also has a weak magnetic field (caused by a complex interaction of solar winds with its own charged atmosphere,) storms, clouds, volcanoes, and mountains. It also boasts a dense atmosphere. By all accounts, Venus shares many traits with Earth. But this is where the similarity ends.
Climate and Topography
When Dante immortalized ‘Hell’ in his epic poem, he may as well have described Venus. Due to its high atmospheric pressure, 92 times that of our own, any visit would be short-lived. Probes braving the surface survive a short time exposed to the elements.
Under its dense cloud cover (once thought to hide dinosaurs) lies a killer climate. A Sulphuric acid ceiling over a 96% carbon dioxide atmosphere makes the planet unlivable (except for potentially microbes suspended in its high atmosphere.) A small Ozone layer provides little protection from UV radiation (that causes skin cancer) and tiny magnetic field a small shield from solar winds. Every 4-5 days expect to be battered by 300km/hr winds, and that’s is the semi-permanent cyclone storms don’t get you first.
Due to its high cloud cover and atmospheric composition, Venus is subject to what is called a ‘runaway’ greenhouse effect. This is the end result of global warming. As the planet is unable to radiate heat away from its surface, that absorbed from the Sun becomes extreme. With an average temperature of 462oC (hottest in our solar system) you could ‘melt lead’. This heat is more than enough to sterilize life, leaving its surface barren, bare and dry. Once felt to hold water, the surface has been evaporated dry and free hydrogen blown into space. Food for thought next time you start your car.
Its deep planetary heat is expressed eloquently in its surface mapping. With 80% of the planet volcanic, the high atmospheric content of Sulphur can be explained. Periods of intense volcanic activity, cycling over millennia, have poisoned the alien sky. Volcanoes greater than 100 km wide are interspersed with ‘Coronae’, land forms caused by great escapes of subterranean heat. The planet is formed by two huge continents, the Northern Ishtar and Southern Aphrodite. These are named after Babylonian and Greek Goddesses of love respectively. At is the highest peak, Maxwell Montes at 8.8km, the planet also boasts dense mountain ranges.
Unlike earth, which is undergoing a constant remodeling process as its tectonic plates shift over its molten mantle, Venus undergoes a periodic and total remodel. Deep heat build-ups cause period ‘subduction’ of its surface, replacing it every few hundred million years. The lack of asteroid impacts (tiny ones never make it through the atmosphere) is a testament to Venus’ new dress. Estimated at 300-600 million years old, the 4.6-billion-year old planet enjoys changing costume.
It is fair to say that we have courted the Goddess. Unlike Mercury, curiously and vastly ignored, Venus has been visited several times. The cold war battle of space led to a series of Soviet and American space programs battling to explore the planet, which ended in a refreshing co-operation when data became available. The Soviet Venera programs were the first to explore the atmosphere and take pictures. The equally important Mariner program collated data and showed us much about the craggy surface.
The later Pioneer projects gave us greater surface mapping, and multiple ‘fly bys’ from the Vega, Galileo, Magellan, Cassini-Huygens and Venus Express built our knowledge considerably. Currently a lone Japanese satellite orbits at a wild angle, collecting new and important data. Akatsuki is Venus’ only current lover but is expected to be joined soon.
Imagine hell on earth. Step outside your door, and if the pressure doesn’t implode your skull, the heat cook your skin, the air burns your lungs or chokes you to death, the lack of food and water will cause a slow and agonizing death. This is where we are headed. Over the last centuries, principally since the industrial revolution, climbing carbon dioxide levels are heating our planet. As this level rises, more heat is trapped, causing more gas to be released from planetary stores. This process is exponential, and we are causing it. No doubt about it. Nature doesn’t care for our fears.
The burning of what we call ‘fossil fuels ‘(those caused by the degradation of dead organic matter) releases carbon dioxide. Unlike Donald Trump, who has just blocked all research funding into Global Warming, scientists are terrified. We are approaching the epoch of disaster, where the earth cannot recover, Multiple national agreements have been drawn to limit fossil fuel (coal, gas) burning, but without a global shift toward clean energy, we have a defined future.
Earth may eventually share the fate of its twin, humanity burned away by its own industry. We can learn much from the Goddess of Love, and perhaps like true love, the harsh reality of our limitations will be laid bare.
Image used courtesy of Pixabay
Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.
Dr. Ben Janaway is a medical doctor and Editor for the online healthcare and education source ‘Mind and Medicine’. He writes regularly for patient.co.uk and The Canary, amongst and other national news sources.
He is also working on a number of literary pieces.
Contact Dr Janaway at www.twitter.com/drjanaway with stories, commissions or for discussion.
Sources and Further Reading
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1f8HjIkU3M (Venus by Gustav Holst. Beautiful music capturing the mystery and darkness of the planet. However, I feel a little generous to the molten death ball.)