On October 6th, 2016 we learned about

Venera missions show how momentous exploration can happen in momentary encounters

As the world recently bid adieu to the Rosetta spacecraft, there was a lot of emphasis on the fact that the collision was a carefully planned way to end the mission. The spacecraft didn’t crash as much as it was quickly and permanently parked on Comet 67P. While the various twists and turns made this seem like an unusual way to end a mission, almost everything we send into space is going on a one-way trip. Exemplifying this concept, the Venera missions carried out by the Soviet Union succeeded in landing multiple spacecraft on the surface of Venus, starting in the 1960s. However, even with a successful, more protected landing than Rosetta’s, these visits were never expected to hold up for more than an hour. …because, you know, it’s Venus.

Visiting Venus, again and again

The Soviet Union’s Venera program was a series of missions to explore our cloudy neighbor in the solar system. While spacecraft were being launched as early as 1961, it took until 1967’s Venera 4 to successfully transmit any data back from within Venus’ atmosphere. In 1970, the Venera 7 became the first lander to ever safely reach the surface of another planet, although safely may be a relative term thanks to the intense heat, crushing air pressure and sulfuric atmosphere that broke the lander down within 23 minutes of its arrival. The brutal conditions made it difficult, but useful data could still be gathered in that time, spurring further exploration.

Multiple landers later, the program set a new milestone in 1981 with Venera 13. As the ninth successful lander, the expectations for Venera 13 were higher, and it delivered. Designed to operate for a mere 32 minutes, this lander managed function for 127 minutes in temperatures as high as 855° Fahrenheit. Like other Venera landers, Venera 13 carried an array of scientific instruments inside a hermetically sealed globe at the top of it’s chassis, which included a color and black and white cameras. For the first and unfortunately, last time, the lander was able to send us our only color photographs from the surface of Venus. They’re not the most scenic images you’ve ever seen, as their focus was actually to capture the rocks and soil the lander was sitting in, but they’re still a high-water mark for these fleeting trips to this hostile environment.

Fleeting but fruitful

The Soviets sent a few more probes to Venus, including the Venera 14 and Vega 1 & 2, but nothing ever lasted more than an hour at a time. These days, we’re practically spoiled by the seemingly endless exploits of Mars rovers like Curiosity, but we shouldn’t discount the science that can be done in brief encounters. Beyond landers being beaten to a pulp while measuring as much as they can on Venus, probes like the Cassini and Juno spacecrafts routinely collect data during quick flybys of their targets. Like so many spacecraft before them, when it’s time to finally “park” these probes, we’ll be sure to learn as much from them as possible in the process.


My three-year-old asked: What would happen if our house was on Venus?

If the average, wood-framed home somehow found itself deposited on Venus, it would be completely destroyed, but it’s harder to say what would do the job first. Wood can ignite at 500° Fahrenheit, well below the 855° the Venera landers encountered. However, there’s a lot less oxygen in the air, so combustion might not be the issue. The winds are extreme in Venus’ upper atmosphere, but not so bad at the surface. However, the atmosphere is so dense you have 93 times the amount of air pressure as you have on Earth, so your house would probably be crushed while it smoldered in the heat. After that, the clouds of sulfuric acid, which can eat through metal and rock, would make short work of your shingles and siding. You’re probably better off moving to Mars.

Source: Venera 13: First Color Pictures From Venus by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com