NASA's Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft sent to "touch" the Sun, recently managed to photograph never-before-seen surface features on Venus. "The images and video just blew me away..."
The Parker Solar Probe is humankind’s first spacecraft specifically designed to fly towards the Sun and “touch” our star and survive to tell the story.
The spacecraft, which is the size of a small car, is specifically built to survive a journey directly through our Stars atmosphere, reaching out towards the Sun at a distance of 4 million miles from the surface.
The Parker Solar Probe was launched in 2018 and has already spent over three years studying the Sun, its atmosphere, and the inner planets of our solar system like Venus.
In November of 2021, the spacecraft completed a record-setting swing by the Sun, coming within 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers) of the solar surface.
Now, researchers report another major accomplishment for the Solar Probe: the uncrewed spacecraft has succeeded in taking its first visible-light photographs of the surface of Venus. These features are usually hidden from view by thick cloud cover.
Parker Space Probe Swings by Venus
In two recent flybys of the planet, the spacecraft used its Wide-Field Imager (WISPR) to photograph the entire night side in wavelengths of the visible spectrum, the kind of light the human eye can see and extending into near-infrared.
The photographs reveal a faint surface glow showing distinctive features such as continental regions, plains, and plateaus.
According to experts, we can also notice a luminescent halo of oxygen in the atmosphere surrounding the planet.
These images of Venus, a planet often referred to as Earth’s twin, can help scientists learn more about the geology of the planet’s surface, what minerals might be present there, and the planet’s evolution.
Given the similarities between the Earth and Venus, this information may help scientists in their quest to understand why Venus became inhospitable, and Earth became an oasis where life developed and continues to exist to this day.
“Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky, but until recently we have not had much information on what the surface looked like because our view of it is blocked by a thick atmosphere,” explained Brian Wood, lead author on the new study and physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.
“Now, we finally are seeing the surface in visible wavelengths for the first time from space.”
The Space Probe snapped the first WISPR photographs of Venus in July 2020 when Parker embarked on its third flyby.
Parker used this flyby to bring its orbit closer to the Sun.
WISPR was designed to see faint features in the solar atmosphere and wind, and scientists thought they could use WISPR to image the cloud tops obscuring Venus as Parker passed the planet.
🤩 You’re going to want to see this!@NASASun’s #ParkerSolarProbe just released its first visible-light images of Venus, allowing scientists to gain new insights into the planet’s surface geology and evolution. Get the details: https://t.co/IMdKCcxEOC#VisionsOfVenus pic.twitter.com/248XJOY6pm
— NASA Astrobiology: Exploring Life in the Universe (@NASAAstrobio) February 9, 2022
Unexpected Success on Venus
Although researchers expected that WISPR would allow them to get better photographs of the clouds on Venus, the spacecraft’s instruments did so much more than just that.
“The objective was to measure the speed of the clouds,” revealed WISPR project scientist Angelos Vourlidas, a co-author on the new paper and researcher at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
However, instead of just observing clouds, WISPR managed to see through to the planet’s surface. The photographs the Parker Solar Probe snapped were so striking that the scientists turned on the cameras again during the fourth pass in February 2021.
During the 2021 flyby, the spacecraft’s orbit lined up perfectly for WISPR to image Venus’ nightside in its entirety.
“The images and video just blew me away,” Wood said.
The clouds on Venus block out most of the visible light coming from the planet’s surface, which means it is tough to observe the surface of Venus. However, longer visible wavelengths, bordering on near-infrared wavelengths, make it through.
While on the dayside, this red light is lost amidst the bright sunlight reflecting off the clouds of Venus in the dead of night. However, WISPR cameras were able to capture this faint glow caused by the incredible heat emanating from the surface of Venus.
This means that the Venusian surface is scorching hot.
“The surface of Venus, even on the nightside, is about 860 degrees,” Wood explained.
“It’s so hot that the rocky surface of Venus is visibly glowing, like a piece of iron pulled from a forge.”
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