The planet Venus is a ‘femme fatale’; beautiful and alluring, and yet secretive and deadly. Revered by the ancients and named by the Romans for their goddess of love and beauty, the Earth’s nearest neighbouring planet appears as a bright ‘star’ in the night sky. Venus was also known as Lucifer for its appearance as the ‘morning star’, and although the name carries devilish connotations, the name in fact refers to its brilliant light. However, the ancients who gave it this name (which is mentioned in Isaiah 14:12) were closer to the truth than they might have imagined, for Venus is a hellish place.
The planet’s atmosphere is incredibly dense and topped by a thick blanket of clouds made of white sulphuric acid that reflects three quarters of radiant sunlight. Venus is a victim of a runaway greenhouse effect. On the surface, first reached by Soviet Venera probes in the early 1970’s, the pressure is equivalent to 90 Earth atmospheres, with temperatures soaring above 850°F. Although Venus is almost twice as far from the sun as is Mercury, it is much, much hotter.
In some ways, Venus is a sister planet to Earth. They’re roughly the same size (Venus is slightly smaller), with similar gravities, densities and chemical compositions. However, in other ways, Venus is not only different from Earth, but is quite unique among all the planetary bodies in the Solar System.
The most staggering difference is that Venus rotates clockwise, meaning that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. This doesn’t happen too often, however, as the planet’s very low speed of rotation means that each complete turn happens only once every 243 Earth days. Incredibly, this is a longer duration than the time it takes Venus to orbit the sun (225 Earth days), although, because of the retrograde rotation, the actual time between sunrises is only 117 days!
One of the great mysteries concerning Venus is the high speed rotation of its cloud cover. Hurricane force winds speed the clouds around the planet at more than 360kmh: this is sixty times faster than the rotation of the planet itself. The upper clouds also feature unusual stripes called ultraviolet absorbers, which soak up blue and ultraviolet light and keep temperatures down below at their extreme levels.
Venus also has an extremely low magnetic field (0.0000015 times that of Earth), and is, with Mercury, one of only two planets that does not have a moon.
Although it may look beautiful from an earthbound perspective, the truth about Venus is quite different, and quite special.