A news story showcasing new observations of surprising changes in the upper atmosphere of Venus has been all over the place this week.
I always like seeing my second favorite planet getting some media love. The press release was nicely written, putting the new findings in the context of changing historical ideas about the Venusian atmosphere. But the headline (which is all that, oh I don’t know maybe 99 %? of readers ever see) really bugged me. Widely blasted around the web, it read: “Venus Weather Not Boring After All, NASA/International Study Shows”
Now doesn’t this seem a tad negative and defensive? Because, actually, Venus is NOT boring. No really, I mean it. Its not. Well, not completely anyway…
By protesting too much, this headline actually revives and reinforces an old, wrongheaded notion about Venus that should have disappeared long ago after exploration began to reveal something very different. The idea that Venus is a dull, unchanging world is a vestige from the time when we knew almost nothing about it. Nothing other than that its surface, hidden from us by perpetual thick clouds, is not a place where life (at least of the organic, water-based flavor) would be possible. Before any actual exploration, it was widely believed that Venus might be a warm, watery world. In this sense, the first direct data represented a great disappointment, a fall from grace. A New York Times editorial in February, 1963, entitled “Venus Says No”, described the first Mariner 2 results as “disheartening, disillusioning”, and declared that “The message from Venus may mark the beginning of the end of mankind’s grand romantic dreams”.
That does sound like kind of a bummer. But as we’ve explored more, we’ve learned that, while not fulfilling our naïve expectations of finding another Earthly paradise nearby, Venus has its own vibrant, variable and – it turns out – highly instructive beauty.
Instructive because it is a once Earthlike world that apparently, long ago, suffered a global climate disaster when a runaway greenhouse left a desiccated and baked vision of Earth’s likely far future. Now isn’t that boring as dirt? Recent discoveries, largely driven by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, have confirmed that Venus today is dynamic and changeable on a bewildering multitude of spatial and temporal scales. Venus keeps dropping us little hints – in the atmosphere, the clouds and the surface mineralogy – of active volcanoes blowing their tops, spewing gas and lava, and remakinglandscapes. If (and I think its more likely when) these clues are confirmed then Venus will also be the only other Earthlike planet we can study up close that is “alive” in an important geological sense, with volcanic eruptions releasing internal heat and fueling a chemically restive atmosphere. If you find that boring, then go back to watching Jersey Shore and lets just forget the whole thing.
Do you find it duller than dishwater that above each Venusian pole we find a giant, shimmering wormhole of a vortex, a permanent and continually morphing inverted tornado that is surely among the most awesome, beautiful and fearsome dynamic structures in the Solar System? These vortices cap an atmosphere that crackles with electric static from mysterious lightning bolts, and holds a mighty planet-wide cloud deck as deep and changeable as the oceans of Earth, with constantly shifting structures that form and dissolve and circle the planet in the raging “superrotating” winds. If our General Circulation Models (GCMs) which we use to predict climate change on Earth, (and which therefore we have staked our future upon) are any good, then they should also work on Venus and do a good job at simulating these winds. Only they don’t (yet) and nobody understands why. Until this problem is solved, we cannot really claim to understand Earth’s climate or how to predict its future changes.
The NASA Magellan mission was the first to map most of Venus in the early 90s, and showed us a planet with both striking similarities and puzzling differences from Earth. We see many of the same landforms, apparently made of familiar rock types, and the same surface processes at work as on our home world – rifts, wrinkles, volcanoes, floods and flows. And yet we also see extreme differences in planetary scale behavior and patterns of organization, and an overall history that has dramatically diverged from Earth’s. Until we understand why Venus does not have plate tectonics today, we cannot claim to understand why Earth does. Magellan also found towering mountains capped with some strangely reflective snow or rust, or… we don’t know, and vast plains of basaltic rock where some unknown liquid (not water) has carved the longest rivers in the solar system.
Is it boring as hell to know that somewhere on Venus, and it may be buried, mangled and melted, are the shores and floors of ancient dried up seas? Would you think it tedious beyond belief to learn know how a planet like ours can lose a habitable ocean? If not, I know where we could find the answer.
No, Venus’ real problem is simply that it is, in many ways, a hard place to explore. It takes some extra engineering to make our machines feel comfortable there. The hyper-acidic atmosphere corrodes metal and glass, the surface temperature and pressure tend to fry and crush things. The globally encircling clouds make it hard to see the surface from orbit. We know how to surmount all of these obstacles but they make exploring our sister planet just a bit more challenging (and expensive). And right now, even the relatively easy exploration missions are not getting flown. Which means that Venus exploration, and science, lag by at least a decade compared to our other wondrous neighbor, Mars. This is a shame for many reasons, not the least of which is that we could use all the wisdom and insight we can gather about how climate functions and changes on Earth. Venus, it can be persuasively argued, is the best place in the Universe for us to look for that desperately needed broadened context on the functioning of our own world.
Venus has been called many things, an Earth gone wrong, a planetary vision of Dante’s hell, Earth’s evil twin, a goddess of beauty, the macho warrior Kukulkan, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, brother of the sun, savior of humanity, evening and morning star, bringer of light. I think of Venus as a planet full of surprise and beauty, a world that beckons like a revelation, a place where we can learn by example how our own world works and how to better care for her. Call her what you will, but please just don’t call her “not boring”!