Venus is the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon. It is an incredibly fascinating object, and ever since the dawn of humanity, people have wondered about its origins and nature. Venus is one of the most studied celestial bodies and has been the subject of countless stories and legends. Let’s look at how Venus was studied over the years, most notably over the last hundred years.
As I said, Venus has actually been observed ever since prehistoric times, when it obviously went under different names, those differing from culture to culture. Interestingly enough, one of the oldest known documents of astronomy, which dates from around the year 1600 BC, and was found in the Babylonian library of Ashurbanipal (king of the Neo-Assyrian empire), is a record of astronomical observations of Venus. The document records the rising and setting times of Venus over a period of 21 years.
Although some civilizations realized that the morning star and the evening star are the same objects, the ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that there were two different objects, named Tioumoutiri (the morning one) and Ouaiti (the evening star). The Ancient Greeks also believed the same thing, but the two “Venuses” went under the names of Phosphorus and Hesperos.
The Maya civilization is also interestingly associated with Venus, as they designed an almanac for Venus’s movements and took very close observations of the object. Why is that? They believed that Venus’ motion was related to events on Earth, such as war, and they believed that they could predict such events by having a calendar for Venus’ movements.
Maybe some of you knew this already, but Venus was the first planet to be explored by a human-made spacecraft (obviously, we cannot state that it was the first planet ever to be explored by a spacecraft since we don’t know whether aliens used to come on holiday to visit Venus or not), and that started in the 60s.
Venera 1 was a Soviet-designed spacecraft launched in 1961 to Venus to attempt a close flyby, but overheated systems caused its failure.
In 1962, Mariner 2, an American probe, attempted and succeeded the first approach to Venus, coming close enough to touch it, and, of course, the astronauts pulled their hands out and touched the beautiful celestial object for the first time. I must be kidding, right? Of course, I am. Mariner 2 was also an uncrewed mission, such as all the missions we are going to mention here, since no human has ever been sent to Venus, not yet at least.
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The Mariner program went on, with Mariner 5 and Mariner 10 attempting more approaches. They succeeded, taking very significant measures regarding temperature, Venus’ magnetic field, its atmosphere, the composition of clouds, and behavior.
However, it was not the Mariner program that succeeded in touching the wonderful planet’s surface (and, after all, we realized that it’s not that wonderful – depends on what you call wonderful), but the Venera program, created by the Soviets. In 1966, more exactly on the 1st of March, the Venera 3 space probe landed on Venus. Well, “landed” is very nicely said. To be fair, Venera 3 crashed on Venus, but hey, it was the first-ever human-made object to crash on some other planet! We failed successfully.
Other notable missions include Venera 7, the Pioneer missions 1 and 2, Venera 13, Magellan, Galileo, Cassini, MESSENGER, and Venus Express. Although Galileo was a mission with Jupiter as its primary goal, Cassini with Saturn, and MESSENGER with Mercury, they all made flybys with Venus, exploring even more aspects about the planet (for example, MESSENGER had a very close flyby, at only 338 km above the surface of Venus).
As for the rest of the missions mentioned, they all had notable accomplishments: Venera 7 has successfully landed on Venus and was the first spacecraft ever to transmit surface conditions, but for a concise amount of time, as temperatures recorded were close to 500 degrees Celsius. The Pioneer missions 1 and 2 were launched in 1978 and consisted of an orbiter, which studied the atmosphere of Venus and mapped its surface for more than 13 years, and some night and day probes, which survived for a longer than expected time (one hour).
Venera 13, a mission sent in 1981, represented the first to send back color images from the surface and X-ray soil analysis. The US orbiter Magellan, sent in 1989, was a huge step forward in our exploration of Venus since it took pictures of more than 90% of its surface and provided an incredible map of its relief. Venus Express, sent in 2005, was an orbiter that lasted until 2014, providing long-term research on the Venusian atmosphere.
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The future is bright. Although astronauts may not be able yet to touch Venus, many adventurous missions are being proposed, and some of them are already accepted for development. Shukrayaan-1 is expected to launch in 2024 or 2026 and will consist of an orbiter and balloons. Balloons, on Venus? It is not the first time. They are incredibly helpful as they are basically the only things we can fly on Venus. The balloon probe of Shukrayaan-1 will have a payload of 10 kilograms to study the atmosphere of Venus at 55 kilometers altitude.
The Venera D mission, expected to launch in 2029, will consist of a lander, an orbiter, and balloons. Basically, the full package. Interestingly, the mission will possibly attempt to land in a Tessera region of Venus, which means an incredibly deformed terrain, but with great potential for scientific exploration.