(ORDO NEWS) — NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took the first visible-light images of the surface of Venus from space.
The surface of Venus, shrouded in thick clouds, is usually hidden from view. But in two recent flybys of the planet, Parker used WISPR to image the entire nightside in visible and near-infrared wavelengths.
The images combined in the video show a faint surface glow that reveals distinctive features such as continental regions, plains and plateaus. A glowing halo of oxygen in the atmosphere can also be seen around the planet.
“We are delighted with the scientific findings that Parker Solar Probe has provided,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Parker continues to exceed our expectations, and we are delighted that new observations made during the gravity assist maneuver may help advance Venus exploration in an unexpected way.”
Such images of the planet, often referred to as Earth’s twin, could help scientists learn more about the geology of Venus’s surface, what minerals might be present there, and the evolution of the planet. Given the similarities between the planets, this information could help scientists understand why Venus became inhospitable and Earth turned into an oasis.
“Venus is the third brightest object in the sky, but until recently we had little information about what its surface looked like because our view of it is obscured by a dense atmosphere,” said Brian Wood, lead author of the new study. “Now we are finally seeing the surface in visible light from space for the first time.”
The first images of Venus were taken by WISPR in July 2020, when Parker went on a third flyby, which the spacecraft is using to tilt its orbit closer to the Sun. WISPR was designed to see faint details in the solar atmosphere and wind, and some scientists thought they could use WISPR to show the cloud tops hiding Venus as Parker flies by the planet.
“The goal was to measure the speed of the clouds,” said WISPR project scientist Angelos Vourlidas, co-author of the new paper and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
But instead of just seeing the clouds, WISPR also saw the surface of the planet. The images were so startling that the scientists turned the cameras back on during the fourth pass in February 2021. During the 2021 flyby, the spacecraft’s orbit aligned perfectly for WISPR to fully map the night side of Venus.
Clouds obstruct most of the visible light coming from the surface of Venus, but the longest visible wavelengths, which border on the near-infrared range, pass through. During the day, the red light is lost in the bright sunlight bouncing off Venus’s cloud tops, but in the dark of the night, WISPR cameras were able to capture a faint glow caused by the incredible heat radiating from the surface.
“The surface of Venus, even on the night side, is heated to about 860 degrees,” Wood said. “So hot that the rocky surface of Venus glows visibly, like a piece of iron pulled out of a forge.”
Passing by Venus, WISPR picked up a wavelength range from 470 to 800 nanometers. Some of this light is in the near infrared, wavelengths we can’t see but perceive as heat, and some is in the visible range, between 380 and about 750 nanometers.
In 1975, the Venera 9 lander, after landing on Venus, took the first tantalizing pictures of the surface. Since then, the surface of Venus has been discovered using radar and infrared instruments that can see through thick clouds using wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye.
NASA’s Magellan mission created the first maps in the 1990s using radar, and the JAXA Akatsuki spacecraft collected infrared images after entering orbit around Venus in 2016. The new images from Parker complement this data by expanding observations to red wavelengths on the edge of what we can see.
WISPR images show features on the surface of Venus, such as the Aphrodite Terra continental region, the Tellus Regio plateau, and the Aino Planitia plains. Since temperatures are about 85 degrees Fahrenheit colder in high mountain regions than in lower regions, they appear as dark patches among the brighter lowlands. These features can also be seen in previous radar images taken by Magellan.
In addition to studying surface features, the new WISPR images will help scientists better understand the geology and mineral composition of Venus. When heated, materials glow at unique wavelengths.
By combining the new images with previous ones, scientists now have a wider range of wavelengths to study, which could help determine which minerals are on the planet’s surface. Such methods have previously been used to study the lunar surface.
Future missions will continue to expand this wavelength range, which will further our understanding of habitable planets.
This information could also help scientists understand the evolution of the planet. Although Venus, Earth, and Mars formed around the same time, they are very different today. The atmosphere on Mars is part of Earth’s, while on Venus the atmosphere is much thicker.
Scientists suspect that volcanism played a role in creating Venus’ dense atmosphere, but more data is needed to figure out how. New WISPR images may provide insight into how volcanoes may have affected the planet’s atmosphere.
In addition to the surface glow, the new images show a bright ring around the planet’s edge, caused by oxygen atoms emitting light in the atmosphere. This type of light, called airglow, is also present in the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is visible from space and sometimes from the ground at night.
The primary focus of the Parker Solar Probe is solar science, and flybys of Venus provide exciting opportunities for additional data not expected at the launch of the mission.
WISPR also photographed Venus’s orbital dust ring — a trail of microscopic donut-shaped particles scattered in Venus’s orbit around the Sun — and FIELDS made direct measurements of radio waves in the Venusian atmosphere, helping scientists understand how the upper atmosphere changes during the 11-year cycle of activity. Sun.
While the geometry of the next two flybys will likely prevent Parker from obtaining an image of the night side, scientists will continue to use other Parker instruments to study the space environment of Venus. In November 2024, the spacecraft will have one last chance to photograph the surface during its seventh and final flyby.
The Parker Solar Probe, built and operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is not the first mission to collect additional flyby data, but its recent successes have inspired other missions to turn on instruments as they fly past Venus. In addition to Parker, the ESA BepiColombo mission and the ESA and NASA Solar Orbiter mission have decided to collect data during flights in the coming years.
Around the end of the decade, new spacecraft will launch to Venus with NASA’s DAVINCI and VERITAS missions, as well as the ESA’s EnVision mission.
These missions will help image and sample the atmosphere of Venus, as well as remap the surface at higher resolution using infrared wavelengths. This information will help scientists determine the mineral composition of the surface and better understand the geological history of the planet.
“By studying the surface and atmosphere of Venus, we hope that upcoming missions will help scientists understand the evolution of Venus and what has made Venus inhospitable today,” said Laurie Gleizes, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters. “While both DAVINCI and VERITAS will use predominantly near-infrared imaging, Parker’s results have shown the value of imaging over a wide range of wavelengths.”
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