The surface of Venus revealed in stunning new detail


Thick clouds composed mostly of carbon dioxide shroud the surface of Venus, the second planet from the Sun. For hundreds of years since the planet’s discovery, astronomers have been unable to take a clear look at the unique geography of Venus. Fortunately, and beginning in the early 80s, scientists devised a clever way to generate not only detailed views of the surface of Venus, but also a way to measure the extent of any tectonic activity.

Mapping Venus

Although the surface of Venus is not detectable to the naked eye using conventional telescopes, radar can easily cut through the clouds and produce detailed images of the planet’s rugged surface. The process involves the measure of beamed radar waves that bounce back, which scientists then use to render a map.


Pioneer Venus Orbitor

In the early 80s, NASA’s multiprobe Pioneer Venus spacecraft and the Soviet Union’s Venera spacecraft were the first to use radar to create a nearly comprehensive map of Venus, which was completed in the 1990s thanks to NASA’s Magellan spacecraft.

Although these early probes and spacecraft provided scientists a detailed visual of Venus’ terrain, they were not able to measure and monitor ongoing geological changes that “could indicate geologic or weather-related processes unique to the planet.

Ground-based radar

To further advance the study of Venus, scientists have recently included the use of ground-based radar, and specifically, two observatories that work in tandem to fulfill a more comprehensive analysis of the geological changes taking place on the planet’s surface. Based in Puerto Rico, the Arecibo Observatory transmits radio waves onto the surface  of Venus. The radio waves that bounce back are then collected by the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope located in West Virginia.

It is painstaking to compare radar images to search for evidence of change, but the work is ongoing. In the meantime, combining images from this and an earlier observing period is yielding a wealth of insight about other processes that alter the surface of Venus.Bruce Campbell, Senior Scientist
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Radar image of Maxwell Montes, Venus’ highest mountain range, made from ground-based Arecibo/GBT observations in 2012.

Using such data collected in 1988, 1999, 2001, and most recently in 2012, scientists can now compare these results to gain an insight into the geological and weather-related activities found on Venus. Oh, and stunning images like the ones above.

For images of Venus, click here.

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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