NASA has captured the first visible-light images of the surface of Venus from space. The planet’s surface is normally shrouded from sight by a thick layer of clouds. In 2020 and 2021, Parker Solar Probe pointed its cameras at the nightside of Venus as the spacecraft flew by. The cameras are known as the Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe or WISPR.WISPR was designed to see faint features in the solar wind flowing out from the Sun.
Scientists thought they could use the cameras to see Venus’ clouds during flybys of the planet. Instead, they saw light and dark surface features through the clouds. This is the first time visible light from the Venusian surface has been captured from space. It’s thrilling to be able to see something that’s never been seen before. This emission that we’re seeing is thermal emission. Even on the night side, the surface of Venus is so hot that it’s glowing faintly at very red wavelengths.
In the images, light areas are hotter and dark areas are cooler. These WISPR images are really exciting because they provide a new window into the lower atmosphere and surface region of Venus where these extreme conditions exist. Scientists compared the WISPR images to topographical maps created with radar to see how temperatures change with altitude. This is Aphrodite Terra, the largest highland region on Venus.
Higher elevations tend to be cooler, and lowland regions hotter. The images could also help scientists see other heat variations. Another really interesting thing we can look for is potentially mineralogical differences. Different rocks, different minerals emit different levels of heat. Understanding the composition of the surface could teach about the planet’s evolution.
Venus is inhospitable to life with extreme temperatures, toxic clouds, and a crushing atmosphere. But the planet may have had a different past. We have chemical fingerprints in Venus’ atmosphere and on its surface suggesting that Venus may have been habitable in the past. The only other visible-light images of the surface of Venus were taken by the Soviet Union’s Venera program when spacecraft landed on the planet. Since then, we have studied Venus with infrared and radar instruments that can peer through the dense atmosphere. The WISPR images extend our observations to red visible light at the edge of what the human eye can see. Parker Solar Probe will have a final chance to image Venus in 2024and scientists hope the WISPR images will collectively have a lasting impact on Venus research.
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