Science | Life Lessons
Yes, There Are Color Photos of the Surface of Venus
I spent much of my childhood living near NASA. My bedroom door was covered in space shuttle stickers, one for each mission. I’ve been to several launches. My grandfather worked there in launch operations. My mother also worked there for three years. In fact, here is a cool family photo of her, pregnant with me, while standing in front of The Challenger. Note the baby bump:
Given all this space culture, I was surprised to recently learn there were photos from the surface of Venus. It somehow eluded my space-obsessed childhood. How had this never been mentioned? Perhaps it was less patriotic to even acknowledge the Russian success. For the uninformed, the entire NASA culture is very infused with Americanism.
After all, the Venus photos were ultimately a product of the Cold War. Our tensions with the USSR accelerated a number of innovations in space travel and research. The same international flexing that produced terrifying weapons also produced incredible technology. It was politically convenient to pour billions into space travel. Everything was about being first and the best.
Why haven’t people seen these photos?
The Soviets were very secretive about their launches. Like most communist nations, there was strong control around the information. If a mission didn’t go well, you rarely heard about it immediately. This secrecy is why we were caught off guard when Sputnik, the first satellite, was announced. We didn’t even know the USSR was as good as they were. And so the photos of Venus were also a big shock.
In the early 20th century, people thought of Venus as being a twin of Earth. The planet was romanticized and even a common plot point in science fiction novels. The Russians decided this would be a good target to explore and get credit for.
There was one big problem with landing a probe on Venus: hospitability. The planet makes Mars look like a high-end resort. Its temperatures rise to north of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It has giant clouds of acid that blow over its surface at hurricane speeds. The pressure is equal to 83 earth atmospheres.
Both NASA and the USSR attempted to send probes to Venus but failed initially. Russia finally succeeded with Venera 10, but its photos were pointed straight at the ground.
The solution was Venera 13. It was built with a reinforced, durable exterior. It managed to land safely. But its tenure would only last for 127 minutes. Before succumbing to the elements, it drilled into the Venusian ground and analyzed soil, and sent measurements back. It measured the surface temperature and pressure and confirmed it was a nightmarish landscape for humanity. Then, it captured a number of photos: 14 in color and eight in black and white.
The initial photos from the set weren’t great:
Venus has the most volcanic activity in the solar system. This is why the surface appears gravely and broken. The closest thing to it on Earth would be a recently cooled volcanic area in Hawaii.
The Venera 13 struggled and succeeded in taking a few more photos. And it was worth the effort. The “show stopper” was a pair it snagged, which shows the full shot of its surface, alongside the crazy atmosphere:
On the ground on the right is part of the camera lens that fell off. The rover immediately went haywire and had problems. It captured these photos while trying to do panoramics. To me, the surface looks like some dimension of hell in the most literal sense. But in its ghoulishness is an incredible beauty. The right half is my favorite photo of another planet — full stop.
Today, there are discussions between Russia and Japan about launching a longer mission to the planet. Innovations in space travel and material science would enable a properly protected craft to conduct experiments over several months.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that we not only have robots moving around on other planets but that we have been doing this since the 1970s. Within all of the ugliness in this world, the tension, and disagreement, we often forget how incredible humanity is. We are an intensely capable organism when we put our minds to it.
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