Tag Archives: venus

[August 27, 1962] Bound for Lucifer (the flight of Mariner 2)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

If familiarity breeds contempt, then enigma must breed fascination.  So it has been with the planet Venus.  “Earth’s twin” in size and density, the second planet out from the sun is, in fact, the closest planet to us.  Yet, thanks to its shroud of clouds, very little can be determined of its nature.  At least, such was the state when I wrote my first article on the planet just three years ago.

Things are changing.

Opened eyes improve vision of Venus

Until recently, humanity was limited to examining the universe in the narrow band of light frequencies discernible to the eye.  That’s actually a tiny portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, which ranges from super-high frequency gamma rays, down through X-Rays, microwaves, and ultraviolet light, passes quickly through the visual light spectrum, and then to the lower-frequency infrared and radio waves.

In the last decade, we have developed ways of probing many of these EM bands from the Earth’s surface, and they have begun to reveal Venus’ true nature.  For instance, measuring microwave emissions from the planet, we find that the dark side simmers at a whopping 650 degrees Kelvin (710 degrees Fahrenheit).  Radio wave measurements seem to confirm this figure. 

The atmospheric pressure at “sea level” is some 50 times greater than on Earth.  It is not certain what components make up the Venusian atmosphere, but likely gases are Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen, and water, in order of amount.  This combination is what causes the planet to swelter so – the air creates a greenhouse effect, trapping heat like a blanket.  The surface of Venus is probably like an oven, extremely dry (despite the potential for water vapor in high clouds), dimly lit by a blurry yellow sun, largely windless, and extremely inhospitable.  So much for the jungle-covered Amtor of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Using radar, scientists have learned that Venus is more reflective than the moon (presumably the surface, or whatever the waves are bouncing off of, is smoother).  It has also been determined that Venus, if it rotates at all, does so extremely slowly.  A Venusian day may well be as long as its year: 225 days.  Scientists have used radar observations to confirm the greenhouse atmospheric model over others that had been advanced in the absence of data.  Radar also has given us a better idea exactly how far away the planet is from us, a critical piece of information for plotting the course of investigating spacecraft.  Which brings us to…

Let the onslaught begin

Every 19 months, the Earth and Venus are as favorably aligned in their orbits as they can get; that is the opportunity to send the heaviest spacecraft (i.e. with the most experiments) to investigate.  The first chance of the Space Age to send a probe to Venus took place in summer of 1959 – too soon for either superpower to loft a probe.  The United States did send up Pioneer 5 to the orbit of Venus in March 1960 to test long distance communications, however. 

The next alignment took place in February 1961.  No American probe was ready, but the Soviet http://galacticjourney.org/tag/venera-1/Venera 1 almost made it to Venus before mysteriously going silent. 

19 months have elapsed again, and this time, both major participants in the Space Race are ready.  Just a few days ago, the Soviets launched another Venera.  It failed to depart Earth’s orbit and will likely decay in a few days, but I can’t imagine it will be their only attempt.  Last month, America’s first try, Mariner 1, veered off course and had to be destroyed after only five minutes in flight.

Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about this if I didn’t have good news.  This morning, a new Mariner rose to the heavens atop an Atlas Agena rocket, and this one is safely on a course for the Planet of Love.

It’s a little probe, really a close cousin to the Ranger probes that have had such ill luck with the moon.  NASA had hoped to send a larger spacecraft, but the new Centaur second stage booster isn’t ready yet.  So the Agena-propelled Mariner carries just 40 pounds of equipment.  There’s no camera onboard, for Mariner lacks the cargo to carry a strong enough transmitter to send pictures. 

But there are several experiments that will be just as valuable.  For instance, there is a pair of radiometers that will tell us, once and for all, just how warm Venus really is.  There are a series of particle counters that will measure radiation both on the way to and in the vicinity of the planet.  This kind of exploration of interplanetary space has only been done once before, and it tells us volumes about the sun and how it affects us.  We will also learn about the fields of electrical force surrounding Venus.

To that end, Mariner 2 also carries a magnetometer, designed to tell us the strength and disposition of Venus’ magnetic field.  I’ve got a personal stake in this little experiment as two good friends, Chuck Sonett and Paul Coleman, are vital members of the team that built it.  These fine fellows worked in the private sector on Pioneer 5, and now NASA has seduced them onto the government payroll.  A win for the United States, I’d say!

So stay tuned.  Mariner will reach Venus in December, and if the probe still be active come then, you can bet there will be a bonanza of scientific results – and you’ll be able to read all about it at Galactic Journey!




[February 13, 1961] Venus Plus USSR (Venera)

Look out, Venus!  The Russians are coming to open your shell.

Venus, forever shrouded in a protective layer of clouds, may soon be compelled to give up her secrets to a 1400 pound probe.  Launched by the Soviet Union on the 11th, it is the first mission from Earth specifically designed to investigate “Earth’s Twin.”

The solar-powered ship is armed with a panoply of scientific instruments, from cameras to spectrometers to magnetometers.  It’s also got a cargo of Soviet pennants and medals to deposit on the Venusian surface a la Luna 2.  It will reach the vicinity of Venus in three months; a full report might not be forthcoming until 1962.  That may seem a long while to wait for results, but one should remember that science takes time—even for nearby probes.  For instance, NASA is only just now processing the data from Explorer 8 (launched into Earth orbit last November, it fell silent just after Christmas.)

The Soviet probe (some reports call it ‘Venera’–Russian for Venus) is not the first deep space mission.  That honor goes to the American Pioneer 5).  Venera is the first ship to be launched from an orbital rocket; the Soviets report that they launched a larger vehicle into orbit, and that Venera took off from there.

This is very interesting given last week’s mystery launch, dubbed Sputnik 7.  As you may recall, the USSR launched a seven ton craft into orbit on the 4th, reportedly to do some near Earth space science.  No beep-beeps have been detected from the vehicle (though its presence has been confirmed by Western astronomers), and the Russians have been unusually quiet about the launch.  That usually indicates some kind of failed mission.

Now, my daughter has an interesting theory.  She believes that it is actually a spy satellite, and that the Soviet caginess is a ploy to lull the West into thinking the mission had been a bust. 

On the other hand, the Venera plus rocket plus fuel combination must have weighed far more than three quarters of a ton.  Is it possible that Sputnik 7 was really Venera 0, and the Venus probe never detached from its mothership? 

Maybe the Russians will tell us…in about a hundred years.

Loveliest of Bodies (Venus, 7-25-1959)


from Timothy Gleason

Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus—whatever you call it, the brightest of star-like objects in the sky has mesmerized humans for the entirety of recorded history, and likely beyond.  It was among the first subjects of telescopic study, and you can bet it will be the first planetary target for space probes.

It is astonishing that, given all of the interest the Planet of Love has engendered, we know so little about our nearest planetary neighbor.  The 2nd planet from the sun, Venus is an orb of mystery–she has been most reluctant to divulge her secrets. 

Galileo saw that Venus went through phases, like the moon, and deduced that Venus was bright with reflected sunlight.  Through transits of the sun (which happen twice a century—I hope I live to see the next ones in 2004 and 2012), we have learned that Venus has a thick atmosphere.  More recently, it has been determined that Venus’ atmosphere contains several hundred times the concentration of carbon dioxide as ours.  Measuring the Doppler shift of the planet’s edges, it appears that the planet rotates very very slowly, perhaps taking months to complete a rotation. 

From the planet’s period and effect on other planets, we know that its mass is actually quite close to that of the Earth, just a touch smaller.  It almost certainly has a rocky surface.  For these reasons, many have called Venus “Earth’s twin.”

Being closer to the sun, it is likely that Venus is much hotter than the Earth, but it is difficult to say how much hotter.  It used to be thought that the surface of Venus might be a global, steaming ocean, but it is more widely believed now that there is no liquid water to be found, and perhaps precious little in the atmosphere.

But that’s all we know!  The clouds are too thick to see through, so we can’t see the surface as we can with Mars.  Perhaps in the near future, microwave and radio astronomy will be keys to mapping Venus, but for now, it’s just a silvery pearl.

Now, every year or so, when the alignment of planets is right, we have an opportunity to send a probe to Venus on a low-energy orbit that accommodates the largest payload for any given booster.  The next one will be in November.  Sadly, though NASA did have plans to launch a Venus mission this year, it has been pushed back due to development teething troubles.  A test satellite with prototype equipment will be sent into orbit next month; if it does well, it bodes well for a Venus probe, though such won’t launch until the latter half of next year.

It may well be that the Soviets beat us to the punch.  Look for a launch later this year (but note that their opportunities are slightly different from ours as they launch from a different part of the globe).

Next up—a review of the latest IF!

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My aching (egg)head (January 1959 F&SF, second half; 1-09-1959)

I tried.  I really tried.

When last we left off, I had saved Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads for last.  It comprises a good third of the January F&SF, and I thought it would be worth an article all to itself.  I suppose it does, at that, but not the way I had thought.

For some reason, when I started this project, I’d had the impression that I liked Fritz Leiber.  I think it was from reading The Big Time, which was pretty good.  Thus my puzzlement when I reviewed “Number of the Beast”, and again when I reviewed “Poor Little Miss MacBeth.”.

I am now coming to realize that I don’t like Fritz Leiber.  The Silver Eggheads was yet another of his over written yet frivolous stories.  I know Fritz has won the Hugo, and I haven’t published any fiction since I was 14 (so what do I know?), but his latest novella was execrable.

Here’s the plot.  I think.  In the future, fiction is turned out by sentient computers.  The fiction-bots are destroyed by disgruntled writers (in the future, human writers don’t actually compose; they just tend the machines), but then are unable to come up with their own stories.  The glib explanation is that people are insufficiently educated in the future to write.  This makes no sense–if the primary form of entertainment in the future is reading, how can it be impossible to know how to write, even if in a mediocre fashion? 

And there are these silver eggs that are apparently the brains of dead writers.  And there is a whole species of robots with their own culture and even genders (but who act just like people–a typical sin of contemporary writers).  And the whole thing is written in this baroque mess that is as much fun to read as stabbing forks into my eyes, with that same casual Playboy Magazine glib chauvinism that I’ve come to expect from Mssrs. Anderson and Garrett.

So, I tried.  I really tried.  But I could not get past the 16th page without skimming.  I have failed you.  I present myself prostrate and ask forgiveness.  Or vindication, whichever may be appropriate.

The rest of the issue fares little better.  John Collier’s Meeting of Relations is a slight, biblically-inspired piece.  It is also 16 years old; its reprinting suggests it was picked based on length rather than quality.

Invasion of the Planet of Love, by George P. Elliott, is another one of those strange pieces that leaves me wondering if it supposed to be satire or not.  I suspect it is, because the subject (rapacious Victorian-types looting and torturing Venus and its inhabitants only to be thwarted by the most peaceful of peoples) is implemented in so heavy-handed a fashion that it must have been meant as some kind of allegory.  It’s certainly not science fiction, at least no more than Burroughs’ work at the turn of the century. 

From <i data-recalc-dims=Exploring the Planets Copyright 1958″/>
From Exploring the Planets Copyright 1958

Incidentally, it is looking as though the “hot but tolerable” Venus is about to go by the wayside (along with all the science fiction stories that take place on it).  A presentation at the Paris Symposium on Radio Astronomy last summer revealed that radar studies done a few years ago show that Venus may be extremely hot–well above the boiling point of water.  I have a suspicion that most of our treasured science-fiction tropes may well be rendered obsolete in the next few years of space exploration.

Wrapping up the magazine is The R of A by Gordon Dickson.  It’s another in a long line of wish-granting genie stories and an interesting commentary on predestination.  Not great, but not bad.

That leaves the score for this magazine at one third 4-star, one third 2-star, and one third 1-star.  This leads to an average of 2.33.  And things started out so well.  On the other hand, the nice thing about digests is you can pick and choose.

Next article: 43,000 Years Later by Horace Coon.  Stay tuned!

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