NASA Probe Captures its First Photos of Venus’ Surface in Visible Light

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe captured the first visible light images from Venus’ surface, breaking through the thick clouds that block the planet.

Reveals continents, plains, and plateaus

NASA reported that the Parker Solar Probe was able, in two flybys, to use its Wide-Field Imager (also known as WISPR), to capture the whole night side of Venus in wavelengths from the visible spectrum to the infrared. NASA calls the photos and videos a “faint glow” on Venus’ surface. They also show distinctive features such as plains, continental regions, and plateaus.

“Venus is third in brightness in the sky, but we didn’t have much information about the surface until recently because our view was blocked by thick atmosphere,” Brian Wood, lead author of the new study, and physicist at Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, said “Now, for the first-time, we are seeing the surface in visible wavelengths from space.”

WISPR performs beyond expectations

As a way of bending its orbit closer towards the sun, Parker Solar Probe flew by Venus. NASA explained that WISPR was designed to detect faint features in the sun’s atmosphere and wind. However, some scientists believed that the imaging technology could also see cloud tops that would obscure Venus while it flew past on its primary mission.

WISPR was capable of much more. WISPR was more than able to see clouds. It could also see through them and down onto the planet’s surface. Scientists captured the first Venus photos on July 2020’s third flyby. They were so impressive that scientists turned on those cameras again when the Parker Solar Probe flew past for the fourth time.

NASA states that visible light from Venus’ surface has a wavelength of only the longest visible wavelengths. These wavelengths border on infrared. This light is lost when it reflects off clouds on Venus’ day side. However, WISPR can pick up faint glows from heat radiating off Venus’ surface on its dark side.

Surface features seen in the WISPR images… | Credits: NASA/APL/NRL
…match ones seen in those from the Magellan mission. | Credits: Magellan Team/JPL/USGS

Wood states that Venus’ surface, even at night, is 860 degrees. It’s so hot, Venus’ rocky surface glows like an iron forge.

Scientists believe that the new images will allow them to better understand Venus’ geology and mineral composition. These glow at different wavelengths when heated. This information can help us understand the evolution of the planet.

NASA explained that the new images also show the surface glow. However, there is a bright ring at the edge of the planet’s surface caused by oxygen atoms emitting light into the atmosphere. This type of light, known as airglow, is also visible in Earth’s atmosphere. It can be seen from space, and sometimes at night, but it’s called airglow.

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