Taking a closer look at Venus from afar

EU-funded scientists set out to significantly advance humankind's knowledge of the planet Venus using data from powerful Earth-based telescopes and the Venus Express spacecraft.

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Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czech Republic
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


 

Published: 13 July 2018  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Pure sciencesAstronomy
Research policySeventh Framework Programme
SpaceSpace exploration
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Belgium  |  France  |  Germany  |  Portugal  |  United Kingdom
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Taking a closer look at Venus from afar

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© Paulista #139857569, source: fotolia.com, 2018

Venus is Earth’s closest relative, but the atmospheres of both planets are radically different. EU-funded project EUROVENUS explored Venus – the closest object to Earth other than the moon – in a bid to advance knowledge on why the two planets are poles apart.

The brightest ‘star’ in the sky was formed at a similar place in the solar system as Earth, it is comparable in size, is made of the same materials, is approximately the same age, and is at a similar distance from the sun. But that is where the similarities end. Venus rotates in the other direction – so the sun rises in the West and sets in the East – and one Venus day lasts longer than one Venus year because the planet spins so slowly.

“Venus is a mythical object, part of humankind’s cultural heritage, but we know so little about it. We don’t know if it has active volcanoes, or if there was an ocean in the past with forms of life. It is really inspiring to know that very close to us there is still a full world to map and discover,” says Thomas Widemann from the Observatoire de Paris, Université Versailles St-Quentin and EUROVENUS project coordinator.

Intense greenhouse effect

Our closest planetary neighbour is covered with a thick layer of sulphuric acid clouds. While the clouds reflect sunlight and the sun’s warmth away, the greenhouse effect they cause is so intense that the atmospheric temperature reaches 450 °C. The planet also experiences much stronger, spiralling winds.

Venus could therefore indicate what happens when climate change goes out of control, perhaps giving clues to the Earth’s future. Currently, climate change on Earth is still limited to a rise of 2 or 3 °C, but it is happening very fast.

During the project, EUROVENUS scientists explored the middle and lower atmosphere of Venus. They used data collected by the Venus Express spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency in 2005, which orbited Venus from April 2006 to December 2014, and very powerful Earth-based telescopes located in Hawaii.

The project built a climatology of Venus’ very dense atmosphere where the atmospheric pressure is 100 times greater than that of the Earth. It also explored the composition of the atmosphere, its wind systems, atmospheric electricity and lightning, its temperature and energy balance, and the planet’s exchanges with space.

“EUROVENUS has considerably increased our knowledge of the structure of Venus’ atmosphere. The European research teams it sponsored over three years achieved several major scientific findings,” says Widemann.

Looking far and beyond

The team used the Earth-based telescopes to gauge the speed of cloud particles by measuring the sunlight they reflect. Alongside data collected by Venus Express, EUROVENUS showed that the velocities of individual cloud particles are the same as those calculated from previously collected cloud imagery. “This confirmed that decades of cloud-tracking observations dating back to the 70s were representative of true atmospheric circulation on Venus,” explains Widemann.

The project also confirmed that the atmosphere on Venus at cloud-top level spins some 60 times faster than the planet itself. The explanation of this super-rotation effect remains a long-standing question in solar-system atmospheric studies. The project also gathered new data on sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere which may indicate the presence of active volcanoes on the planet.

EUROVENUS has helped Europe stay at the cutting-edge of Venus exploration and in the emerging field of comparative planetology. Although the project has ended, several space agencies are discussing a future mission to planet Venus. The European proposal for a new mission – EnVision – has been put forward by two EUROVENUS partners.

Project details

  • Project acronym: EUROVENUS
  • Participants: France (Coordinator), Belgium, Portugal, Germany, UK
  • Project N°: 606798
  • Total costs: € 2 831 338
  • EU contribution: € 2 184 687
  • Duration: November 2013 to November 2016

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