Earth’s Toxic Twin

Investigating the Scorching World of Venus

By Google Arts & Culture

Mackenzie White

View of the Docked STS-132 Atlantis (2010-05-16)NASA

Venus From Afar

Named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus seems to embody the qualities of the lovely deity from the perspective of distant observers. It is the brightest planet in Earth’s night sky and the second brightest object overall (outshone only by the Moon).

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Venus SurfaceNASA

However, as NASA’s Mariner 2 mission saw in December 1962, a closer look at the planet reveals a scorching, inhospitable world.

Magellan 3D perspective of Venus surface in western Eistla Regio (1991-10-29)NASA

Venus is the hottest planet in our Solar System, covered in toxic clouds reeking of sulfuric acid. Temperatures at the surface are hot enough to melt lead, while the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere above forces pressures over 90 times those on Earth.

Biomarker Phosphine Discovered in the Atmosphere of VenusOriginal Source:

On the ground, the opaque clouds obscure the Sun, allowing only a dim, bleak light to reach the surface. Learn more here.

Solar System Montage - High Resolution 2001 Version (2001-03-29) by NASA/JPLNASA

The desolate landscape may appear nothing like our habitable world. However, there’s a good reason scientists call this hazardous planet “Earth’s twin.”

Earth with clouds, From the collection of: NASA
Venus Surface, From the collection of: NASA
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In several categories—size, density, and fundamental composition—Venus is the spitting image of Earth.

Hemispheric View of Venus Centered at the North Pole (1996-06-03) by NASA/JPL/USGSNASA

Structure of Venus

These similarities suggest they share an internal structure consisting of a metallic core enclosed by a mantle with a thin, rocky exterior crust.

NASA Releases New High-Resolution Earthrise Image (2017-12-08)NASA

An Earth-Like Surface?

In addition to these fundamental characteristics, Venus may have also once been a livable, Earth-like planet. Scientists have found evidence that billions of years ago, when the Sun was cooler, liquid water may have been common on the Venusian surface.

Super-Venus Artist Concept (2013-04-18) by NASA/Ames/JPL-CaltechNASA

In these earlier days of the Solar System, research suggests the climate on Venus also supported habitable temperatures. Scientists are also searching for evidence of life, though whether any existed during this time remains entirely speculative.

Surface Warmth on a Venus Volcano (2010-04-08) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESANASA

Although they may have resembled one another at one point, Venus has since taken a dramatically different evolutionary path from Earth.

Its present-day, sweltering surface is brutally volcanic, with thousands of volcanoes scattered across the landscape. Occasional impact craters, mountains, valleys, and extensive lava flows also speckle the otherwise smooth volcanic plains.

Magellan Perspective View of Ovda Regio, 15° N, 77° E (1998-06-04) by NASA/JPL/USGSNASA

This image features Ovda Regio — a Venusian crustal plateau. It was captured by NASA's Magellan mission. Learn more about Magellan here.

Volcanism has undoubtedly shaped the planet’s geology, though research remains inconclusive and ongoing to determine whether there are any active eruptions occurring today.

Magellan 3D view of Venus impact craters (1991-11-07)NASA

A Poisonous Surface

The first planet visited by a spacecraft, Venus has received landers and orbiters from numerous space agencies. The few that have reached the surface survived only a few minutes before they were melted by high temperatures, crushed by intense pressures, or corroded by toxic gas.

Model, Planetary Probe, Pioneer Venus Orbiter Model, Planetary Probe, Pioneer Venus OrbiterSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Though their time was short-lived, landers provided instrumental data in shaping the scientific understanding of Venus.

Global view of Venus from Magellan, Pioneer, and Venera data (1991-10-29)NASA

For example, the Venera 13 orbiter and lander returned the first color images of Venus' surface and was the first mission to record sounds (wind) on another planet.

Artist. (1977-04-19)NASA

During its 2-hour, 7-minute life on the surface, it also directly sampled the soil, reporting its volcanic characteristics to Earth.

Learn more about Venera 13 here.

STS-30 inertial upper stage (IUS) with Magellan deployment (1989-05-04)NASA

From atmospheric probes to radar orbiters, numerous planned upcoming missions aim to resolve Venus's intriguing past and current geologic mysteries. 

LIFE Photo Collection

Thanks to these scientific surveyors, the next few decades promise to be an exciting era of insight into the harsh place that may have once resembled our home.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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