The European Space Agency's Venus Express spacecraft returned the first images of the planet's south pole yesterday, revealing a tempestuous sky of sulfuric acid clouds whipped by winds moving faster than 200 mph.
Scientists have been hampered from peering into Venus' atmosphere because of a thick haze enshrouding the planet. But the spacecraft's infrared and visible cameras were able to capture two slices of the atmosphere at 34 miles and 40 miles above the surface.
"We have been able to see the top 1 percent of the atmosphere," said Kevin Baines, a planetary scientist based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and a co-investigator of the mission. "With these [cameras], we see the rest of the 99 percent."
The probe's first pictures were taken from a distance of about 128,000 miles. In the next few weeks, it will gradually circle into its final orbit, 155 miles from the planet's north pole.
Venus Express, launched in November, will enable scientists to study the planet for at least 16 months and provide the first chance to build a three-dimensional model of its atmosphere.
Venus and Earth share similar ages, masses and surface composition. But Venus developed a far denser atmosphere. It has a surface temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit and an atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth.
Venus developed the most powerful greenhouse effect in the solar system as layers of carbon dioxide trapped heat from the small amount of sunlight that pierced the clouds. Studying this greenhouse effect could illuminate the possible course of global warming on Earth.
Jia-Rui Chong writes for the Los Angeles Times.