PARIS: Once styled as Earth’s twin, Venus was transformed from a haven for water to a fiery hell by an unstoppable greenhouse effect, the first space probe to visit our closest neighbour in more than a decade has confirmed.
Like peas in a cosmic pod, the second and third rocks from the Sun came into being some 4.5 billion years ago with nearly the same radius, mass, density and chemical composition.
But only one, Earth, developed an atmosphere conducive to life. The other, named with unwitting irony after the Roman goddess of love, is an inferno of carbon dioxide (CO2), its bone-dry surface hot enough to melt lead.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express, orbiting its subject since April 2006, seeks to explain this astonishing divergence.
Preliminary data from the probe reveal a Venus that is more Earth-like than once thought – but not in ways that are reassuring. “The basic physics of the greenhouse effect are the same on Venus as on Earth,” said Venus Express scientist David Grinspoon. “Perhaps the same fate will await the water on Earth.”
At first blush, the two worlds, 42 million kilometres apart at their closest points, could hardly be more different.
Earth’s temperature range has remained largely stable and its atmosphere has maintained a relatively constant mix of gases. This, with the precious water covering two-thirds of its surface, has allowed riotous biodiversity to flourish.
Venus’ atmosphere, though, overwhelmingly comprises suffocating CO2 and a permanent blanket of clouds laced with sulphuric acid. Oxygen is nowhere to be found, nor is any water except in atmospheric traces.
Its surface hovers at 457°C and is subject to a pressure which, on Earth, would be equivalent to being a kilometre under the sea. But this was not always so, says Hakan Svedhem, an ESA scientist and lead author of one of eight studies published on Wednesday in the British journal Nature.
Venus, he believes, was partially covered with water before it was doomed by global warming. “Probably because Venus was closer to the Sun, the atmosphere was a little bit warmer and you got more water very high up,” he said.
As water vapour is a greenhouse gas, this further trapped solar heat, causing the planet to heat up even more. So more surface water evaporated, and eventually dissipated into space. It was a “positive feedback” – a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing warming which slowly dessicated the planet. “Eventually the oceans begin to boil,” said Grinspoon. “We believe this is what happened on Venus.”
Even today, Earth and Venus have roughly the same amount of CO2. But while most of Earth’s store remains locked up in the soil, rocks and oceans, on Venus the extreme heat pushed the gas into the air.
“You wound up with what we call a runaway greenhouse effect,” said Svedhem. “[It] reminds us of pressing problems caused by similar physics on Earth.”
Venus Express, the first dedicated mission since the U.S. Magellan Orbiter mapped the planet’s surface in the early 1990s, is equipped with an arsenal of sensors to peer through the dense clouds across the entire light spectrum.
One surprise already turned up by the 600 kg probe is a 30 to 40 deg;C variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures at an altitude of 60 km. At this height, violent winds three times stronger than hurricanes on Earth should even out differences – or so it had been thought.
There are many questions yet to be answered during the mission, which is scheduled to last through 2013.
One is whether there is lightning on Venus. Given the kind of clouds covering the planet, there simply should not be any, Andrew Ingersoll, a professor at Caltech University in Pasadena, California, said in a commentary, also published in Nature.
But Venus Express has detected “whistlers,” low-frequency electromagnetic waves that last a fraction of a second and are normally a sure sign of electrical discharges. “We consider this to be the first definitive evidence of abundant lightning on Venus,” said Grinspoon. A powerful source of energy, lightning changes the chemistry of any planet with a dynamic atmosphere, such as Earth or Venus, he added.
Another enigma: some time within the last 700 to 900 million years, the planet seems to have lost its skin, its topography resculpted by some giant force.
“Venus has quite recently completely changed its surface,” said Svedhem. “Some event completely changed everything – this is a strange process we do not completely understand.”