Since last Summer the King has been holding court.
High, bright and demanding tribute, Jove has sat on his throne and looked down on us.
Millions have looked up, stared, wondered and admired.
But Jupiter is being been usurped.
A goddess has sprung from the glare of the Sun and is stealing his sky.
Over six times brighter and soon to be higher in the sky you cannot miss Venus, for the Romans the embodiment of liaison, sexuality and enchantment. As a young astronomer Venus was my first planet and she has always held me in her thrall.
While it is a world that in size and mass could be Earth’s twin, there is almost nothing about Venus that would remind of us of home or entice us to pay a visit. Her brightness, while in part due to proximity to the Sun is mainly a result of the very reflective and thick layer of acid laden clouds that utterly obscure the surface from view. Below the clouds a world of unimaginable nightmare awaits. Average temperatures at the surface are around 460oC; the ground actually glows as the iron within it is heated red hot. The air surrounding you at the surface crushes down with 90 times the force of Earth’s surface pressure. This is no loving embrace that awaits us.
No plate tectonics relieve the pent up heat and pressure from underground, as it does on earth, instead Venus is thought to under-go massive and catastrophic resurfacing events when it all gets too much. There are volcanoes on the surface but there appears to be little activity and until recently they were thought to be dormant or extinct.
To confound the ‘weary traveller’ further, Venus is the only planet in our solar system that rotates on its axis in a clockwise direction; any hint of the sun you get through sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide will move ‘the wrong way’.
The longest a probe has lasted on the surface was the Russian Vernera 13 and that managed an amazing 127 minutes before it succumbed to the environmental hell of Aphrodite.
Venus is climbing serenely in the sky and will soon meet Jupiter in what promises to be a spectacular conjunction. But as you gaze at the bright and seductive ‘evening star’, perhaps even marvel at the soft shadow she can cast, remember that you are looking at a toxic, overheated hell.