Our Closest Neighbor
Posted on 02/10/2021 by Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Author Masterminds Member
There are so many stars shining in the sky, so many beautiful things winking at you, but when Venus comes out, all the others are waned, they are pushed to the background. — Mehmet Murat Ildan
Venus, the second planet from the sun, is the only other planet in our solar system I have had personal experience with. During the summer of 2012, I viewed its transit across the face of the sun through a telescope on the Anchorage Museum’s lawn. Venus only appeared as a very slow-moving tiny black shadow on the titanic disc of the sun. But I envisioned that shadow as a bright cloud enveloped world.
At certain times of the year, it is the brightest planet in the night sky due to its highly reflective atmosphere. It is little wonder that many ancient civilizations named it a god or goddess. The Romans, captivated by its brightness and beauty, called it the goddess Venus. She represented love, beauty, prosperity, fertility, victory and was the mother of Cupid. She was so important to Romans; they claimed her as an ancestress. According to their mythology, she had a son named Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy. He then became the ancestor of Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome.
Close to 1000 years later, when celestial bodies had lost most of their godly status and Venus was all but forgotten, an important discovery was made about the heavens. By observing the phases of Venus in the night sky, the astronomer Galileo was able to figure out the planet orbited the sun and not the earth. This disproved the widely held belief at the time that the earth was the center of the universe, and everything orbited it. This was a monumental astronomical discovery, but it caused an unexpected turn of events for Venus.
Now that the earth was not the center of the universe, it was no longer a unique place in that it was not the only planet with an orbit and features such as mountains. This allowed for the possibility of life on other worlds. With the limited view telescopes provided, until the invention of space probes, it was up to the human imagination to fill in what remained unseen. From observations of the canal structures on Mars (later discovered to be dried up riverbeds made from water that had once existed), astronomers thought the Martians who lived there traversed these structures as the ancient Egyptians once did the Nile. Then when they observed Venus, unable to peer beyond its thick atmosphere, they imagined its surface covered in a steamy jungle or swamp, populated by dinosaur-like creatures. But in reality, none of these theories were remotely close to the truth.
In December of 1970, the Soviet Union’s Vener 7 plunged through the thick atmosphere of Venus and landed on the surface, making it the first human-made spacecraft to land on another planet. Instead of it revealing a cloud covered jungle, it showed a hostile and desolate planet devoid of any life. Covering its surface were thousands of flat pancake-like volcanoes spewing lava into massive flows of molten rock. The average surface temperature measured 880 degrees Fahrenheit, with the pressure sitting at a crushing 90 times that of Earth – a similar pressure found in the cold gloom of the Earth’s ocean at 3,300 feet. The atmosphere was comprised mainly of carbon dioxide with only trace amounts of water and clouds consisting of sulfuric acid. Then the top layer of Venus’s poisonous atmosphere, propelled by hurricane-force winds of roughly 224 miles an hour, zips around the planet every four days. Considering the hellish environment of this planet, it should come as no surprise that Vener 7 lasted only 127 minutes on the surface before Venus’ immense pressure crushed it.
From this, we have the morbid opportunity to think about what might kill you first if you traveled to Venus. Would you be bludgeoned to death by hurricane-force winds, chemically burned to death with sulfuric acid, turned to ash, suffocated, crushed, struck by lightning born from sulfuric acid clouds, or killed in an explosion from volatile compounds forming naturally within the atmosphere. These are disturbing subjects to think about, but they do a good job of demonstrating how insanely deadly this planet is.
This was far from the depictions of a prehistoric landscape of fog and trees or a beautiful goddess representing love. But strangely, the ancient Romans were not as far from the mark as it seems. Returning to their mythology, Venus was married to Vulcan, the god of fire, which seems a more fitting name for the brutally inhospitable world. And comically, it could have led to many Star Trek themed jokes directed at its name, Planet Vulcan.
Our Closest Neighbor was first published with Readers and Writers Book Club: https://readersandwritersbookclub.com.