Monday, April 10, 2006

New probe arrives at Venus tomorrow

The Venus Express, a $260 million mission to find out why Venus is a broiler and earth is not, is scheduled to go into orbit early tomorrow morning. It is designed to answer some specific questions.

Chief among them is what happened to turn Venus into a child's vision of hell, with a superheated toxic soup of an atmosphere that is 90 times denser at the surface than Earth's -- about the same pressure as the ocean at a half-mile depth. ...

There is a lot to understand. Measurements taken by early probes of Venus have made scientists all but certain that the planet once had extensive oceans that heated up and finally boiled off.

Quite probably the resulting cloud of water vapor provided the initial atmospheric blanket that turned the planet into a hothouse. "But where did [the water] go?" asked University of Michigan planetary scientist Stephen Bougher. "Nobody knows."

If they can figure out what happened on Venus, it might do one of two things: rule out the same thing happening to Earth, or provide a glimpse of what our future might be like if things go bad.

Given that Venus once had oceans, it also would be interesting to design a probe to land on the surface and search for fossilized evidence of life. Assuming all the hyperactive volcanism didn't erase the evidence in the eons since the oceans disappeared.

And there are other mysteries:

Another puzzle that has mystified scientists for decades is Venus's winds, which are negligible on the surface but reach speeds of 220 mph in the upper atmosphere, much faster than the planet rotates. Venus, the slowest-spinning planet in the solar system, has a "day" that is the equivalent of about 224 Earth days.

I can't wait for the data to come back and get analyzed.

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