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Some Thoughts on Venus

By Bill Nye | Published: September 2, 2010 – 7:42 pm

Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that’s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by the relatively small number of missions that have made the trip to the hot acid planet, and by the exiguity of basic facts about what goes on there. With Mars, it’s a different story. When our robots arrive at the red planet, there’s plenty to see and plenty of data to send back to us on Earth. Such is not the way with Venus, but perhaps it should be.

Each presenter I spoke with is excited to be exploring Venus but generally suffering a little frustration. Imagine us, a spacefaring species that loves to wander and transmit images, relishing pictures of exotic lakes of ethane on a moon of distant Saturn, but not knowing if a planet much closer by, that shines romantic beams every evening brighter than any star, has volcanoes erupting on its surface. Venus is a hard target– solid rock but a very difficult place to explore. It’s clouds of sulfur compounds obscure a rocky surface so hot that the acid rain evaporates before it can get to the ground.

After a few papers were presented, it became clear to anyone in the audience, that all of us should be thinking hard about Venus and what goes on there– especially what goes on with its weather– its climate. It’s the greenhouse effect gone wild.

Whether the researchers were arguing about the isotopic evidence for and against volcanism, or whether they were brainstorming ways to get balloon gondolas to survive a whirlwind trip in the relatively warm though low pH super-rotation of acidic winds aloft, they all share a concern about Earth on account of their fascination with Venus. The subtext of all the Venus talk is climate change on Earth.

Looking at a first cut of the venusian data, Venus is our sister planet. It’s rocky, round, and about the same size as our Earth. It has fluffy white clouds. Although it’s just 30% closer to the Sun than we are, it is hellishly hot, and no sky can be seen from its surface. Its rotation has been slowed to once every 240 Earth days by the astonishing tidal drag of it’s 90 Bar atmospheric pressure. In that dense gas mixture, the clouds spin around ten times faster than the planet they hide. For these researchers, it’s the atmosphere that’s brought all these striking inhospitable features to the fore of the VEXAG discussions.

Almost every paper presented carries with it concern about climate change back here on Earth. Using data gathered by Soviet spacecraft over 20 years ago, researchers are looking for evidence of lightning. Japanese scientists and spacecraft builders have Akatsuki en route to our clouded sister world. Named “Dawn,” because that’s when Venus is visible, it will fly into a brilliantly conceived orbit that will allow studies of the Venusian air, with light from both the planet’s limb and cloud decks. Along with managing the passage of night and day, Akatsuki is in, not a surface-synchronized orbit, but a super-rotating cloud-synched route. And of course, European and North American explorers continually plan missions to know more about this hot old place.

Sanjay Limaye from the University of Wisconsin, an old friend of the Society and the organizer of the event, arranged for a public talk. Several hundred people came to hear about Venus. Jan Smit from the University of Amsterdam spoke about the geologic boundary created by the Chixalub impact 65 million years ago. He showed that it is indeed the event that wiped out most of the ancient dinosaurs. He logically tied that mass extinction to climate changes on Earth, and then to climate change on Venus. David Grinspoon from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science was next, showing the audience the clear connections and lessons to be learned from the geology of Mars, Earth, and Venus. Climate change was once again his focus. Finally, I got up and did my best to entreat the crowd to take climate change seriously and develop new technologies and save the Earth– save it for us, for us humans.

For me, VEXAG was remarkable. Venus is our closest neighbor, yet we are not clear on what makes that world go round. Everyone at VEXAG would agree, we have to come up with many more missions and methods worthy of the challenge above and beneath the clouds of Venus.

11 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Venus”

  1. Terry! says:

    Hi Bill! Would love to hear what you have to say about the recent, insane heat wave Southern California just experienced…and your thoughts on global warming. Stay cool!

  2. Casey Goranson says:

    Hello! I still remember seeing episodes of The Science Guy as a kid. Always enjoyed ‘em, especially being brought up in an academic household (father was a professor of Psychology). Sometimes, after seeing a show, I’d try looking for more info at the library (only to get distracted and return to the astronomy section like a magnet!).

    I agree that space travel is essential for human survival, at least for the current world population and higher. However, I cannot help but worry about extraterrestrial human behaviour. What’s to stop us from doing the same to other planets, moons, asteroids, etc., that we’ve done to the Earth?
    Look at the current, junk-cluttered state of near-Earth orbit: not a good start for our handling of outer space.
    Call me a pessimist if you must, but as mush as I want to believe in humanity’s general good nature, I can’t help but consider the powerful sway opportunism and procrastination hold over people. Opportunism is what allows life to evolve, and humans are particularly opportunistic by nature. It’s what got us to where we are today – a highly advanced, highly destructive species. And procrastination – people have a tendency not to like dealing with things that, in their minds, don’t effect them immediately. It’s simple psychology – if a certain action or thing is not directly affecting (or indirectly affecting with minimal in-between factors) a person, then he/she cannot accurately or comprehensively understand the action/thing. If a person does not intimately understand an action/thing, then they are less likely to give it their attention. Furthermore, unfortunately, people forget, so history has a way of being repeated.
    Why should this be expected to change, just because we’re in a different location, albeit an extraterrestrial one?

    I’m not trying to be a “troll” or rain on the parade by raising these points; rather, it is because I find your viewpoint interesting and worthy of discussion that I raise them.

  3. kenneth says:

    We love Ya Bill. Venus is totally different to what we all predicted 50 yrs ago. I thought I would have a weekender on Venus and could invite you for the weekend. Sorry Bill it is just to hot. The resonance of the sun, moon and earth may be the life force, will it be common in the Universe?

  4. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  5. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  6. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  7. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  8. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  9. [...] Is Venus the forgotten planet, or just one that?s hard to figure out? Absorbing the presentations at the Venus EXploration Advisory Group (VEXAG) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin in the U.S. this week, I can tell you Venus is both. Many people around our world of space explorers seldom think about Venus. This is evidenced by Read More > [...]

  10. August says:

    This gave me some interesting and great facts about Venus I love learning about the planets and about the earth it’s just so awesome!!!!

  11. Allanah says:

    I agree with august it’s just so awesome to learn about this stuff it is so educational!!!!!

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