From Earth, Venus appears to be a gaseous ball, not unlike Neptune. That’s not the case, though. As revealed by new detailed radar and satellite images, Venus has a firm surface (complete with mountains, ridges, etc.) hiding beneath it’s thick atmosphere. Though radar imaging sometimes relies on spacecraft like NASA’s Magellan, scientists were recently able to capture stunning images from here on Earth.
There’s just one oddity, though. Due to the Doppler “equator” being too close to obtain high-resolution image data, the resulting images make Venus look an awful lot like Canadian characters on the popular TV show “South Park.” However, Venus does not talk by flapping it’s two halves, or at all (as far scientists know).
The detail retrieved by researchers is thanks to a combination of two powerful tools: The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the radar transmitter at the NSF’s Arecibo Observatory. This is not Arecibo’s first foray into surveying Venus, either – it first beamed radar signals to our neighbor in 1988, and most recently worked in concert with GBT in 2012.
Because Arecibo’s radar signals are so powerful, they’re able to pass through both Earth and Venus’ atmosphere, where they bounce off the surface and make their way back. Upon return, GBT receives them in a process called bistatic radar.
The process isn’t easy, as astronomers receive images in relatively small pieces.
“It is painstaking to compare radar images to search for evidence of change, but the work is ongoing. In the meantime, combining images from this and an earlier observing period is yielding a wealth of insight about other processes that alter the surface of Venus,” said Bruce Campbell, Senior Scientist with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Painstaking as it may be, our ability to penetrate Venus’ thick, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere is crucial to understanding the planet from a geological perspective. With these capabilities, we can not only see Venus now, but monitor it for signs of volcanic and other geologic activity in the future. As with most similar endeavors, information about Venus’ internal workings may provide clues to our own planet’s beginnings.
As of today, Venus’ surface appears relatively young, with ridged terrain, but many volcanoes as well. Though they don’t appear active currently, scientists believe there may have been a great deal of activity in the past few million years.