Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Freakin' Solar System, Part 1: Let's Talk About Venus

Venus' rotation. As you may notice, Venus wants to be an individual and it doesn't want to rotate the same way as its neighbor, Earth. YouTube video. 

I don't talk much about the solar system, so today I decided to talk about the other planets a bit. First, Venus. It's similar in size to Earth. It has a very dense atmosphere and from probes, appears to be cream-colored. However, the clouds consist of mostly sulfuric acid and the atmosphere contains a lot of carbon dioxide, making it an unlikely place for humans to ever visit. Also, the atmospheric pressure tends to crush a lot of landers sent to Venus, making it uninhabitable. The actual surface of Venus appears to be formed from volcanic eruptions and is largely desert-like. 

In the 1960s, radar sent from Earth discovered that Venus rotates clockwise (or "retrograde"), unlike all of the other planets in the solar system. No one knows quite why this happens. Theories abound: either Venus' thick atmosphere caused the planet's slow, reverse rotation or galactic impacts may have disturbed its rotation. No one knows, though. In the night sky when it's visible, Venus is extremely bright. Right now on the U.S. eastern coast, Venus is usually visible until around 8:20 p.m. 

A few space probes and landers have been sent to Venus to further explore why it wants to be a hipster. In the 1970s, Russia successfully landed some landers (the Venera program) which took some photos of the Venusian surface; however, the landers were quickly destroyed by high temperatures and pressures. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Pioneer Venus Orbiter took some gorgeous photos of the planet. The U.S. Magellan probe was outfitted with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and proceeded to map the surface of the planet. The results were pretty amazing. You can visit Venus by looking through your telescope at night or by visiting JPL's Eyes on the Solar System, where you can recreate Magellan's mission.