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Profile of Venus Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 16, 2011

The Year And The Day

The second planet from the Sun is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. This doubtless arose from its striking appearance in the evening and morning skies, especially near the times of maximum elongation. However, as the literal facts about Venus emerged from flybys and landings that took place in the mid-twentieth century, it became clear that the surface of Venus is neither a lovely nor a beautiful place. In fact, conditions there resemble medieval humanity’s conception of hell.

Mercury’s mean orbital radius is 72 percent that of Earth—roughly 108 million kilometers (67 million miles). The perihelion and aphelion of Venus differ by less than one percent, so the orbit of the planet is nearly a perfect circle. At times, Venus comes within 38 million kilometers (24 million miles) of Earth. Venus takes 225 Earth days to orbit the Sun.

The day on Venus is strange because it is longer than the year. Venus rotates once on its axis, relative to the distant stars, every 243 Earth days. The peculiarity goes further: Venus spins from east to west rather than from west to east.

The tilt of Venus’ equatorial plane, relative to that of its orbit around the Sun, can be interpreted in either of two ways. If we consider the rotation of the planet to be retrograde (that is, from east to west), then the tilt is only about 3 degrees. This is the conventional view. However, we also can imagine the tilt as being 177 degrees (3 degrees short of a complete flipflop), so the north pole points in the opposite direction from the north poles of all the other planets. No one on the surface would care about details like this. They would be preoccupied with surviving the heat, comparable with the temperature of Mercury’s Caloris Basin at midday, and the pressure, which would necessitate that housing be designed as if it were for the deep sea. The daylight on Venus is comparable with that of a gloomy winter afternoon in London or Seattle.

Composition

Venus, like Mercury, is moonless. The planet is almost the same size as Earth (12,100 kilometers or 7,500 miles in diameter), and the internal composition is similar to that of our own planet. However, from the surface upward, Venus and Earth could hardly be more different.

The surface of Venus remained a mystery until it was mapped by radar. The microwave signals of radar equipment can penetrate Venus’s thick clouds, which maintain an unbroken overcast at an altitude several times higher than the highest clouds on Earth. These clouds reflect light very well, and this accounts for the brilliance of the planet as we see it in our evening or morning sky. When the surface was finally observed using radar and computer-graphics programs, huge volcanoes were discovered. The largest of these would make Hawaii’s Big Island seem tiny in comparison.

In the 1970s, Russian Venera probes landed on Venus and survived long enough to take a few photographs. The surface appeared strewn with rocks that cast no shadows on account of the overcast. The landscape and sky were bathed in rusty light, produced by filtration of sunlight through the sulfurous clouds. There was no sign of life, and it was surmised that life as we know it could not exist there. Along with the searing heat, the pressure at the surface of Venus is 90 times as great as the pressure at Earth’s surface.

The surface of Venus is not cratered in the same way as the Moon or Mercury because the atmosphere of Venus has eroded all minor impact marks that might have been formed long ago. Small meteors are burned up by the atmosphere; Venus’s shroud of heavy carbon dioxide provides better protection than does Earth’s atmosphere. Gigantic meteors and, of course, asteroids can survive even the thickest atmosphere, and it is certain that Venus, like all the other planets, has been struck many times. However, the more notable source of cratering on Venus is volcanic activity.

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