NASA’s Parker Solar spacecraft has captured the first images of Venus, the Sun’s second planet and Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, in visible light. Venus is usually smothered by thick clouds and shrouded in sight. The spacecraft captured the images at wavelengths of the visible spectrum — the type of light the human eye can see — during two recent flybys, using its Wide-Field Imager, or WISPR, the space agency said. Scientists hope these never-before-seen images of Venus will help them much better understand the planet’s geology and mineral composition.
NASA said the images reveal distinctive features such as continental regions, plains and plateaus. The planet is also surrounded by a luminous halo of oxygen in the atmosphere. Given the similarities between Venus and Earth, scientists are also hoping to find out why one of the planets became inhospitable and the other welcomed life.
“We are excited about the scientific information Parker Solar Probe has provided so far,” Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, he said in a statement. Fox added that these images could advance the search for Venus in unexpected ways.
The images captured by the solar probe during two flybys were combined into a video to be able to see the entire night side of the planet. WISPR photographed the planet in visible and infrared light. WISPR was primarily designed to observe the faint features of the Sun, but scientists decided to use it to peer through Venus’ thick clouds.
The scientists have published a full analysis of the latest discovery in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on February 9.
Brian Wood, the lead author of the new study, said that until recently scientists didn’t have much information about what the surface looks like because our view is blocked by a thick atmosphere. “The images and video blew me away,” added Wood.
Wood said that the surface temperature of Venus, even on the night side, is around 460 degrees Celsius. It is so hot that the rocky surface of Venus visibly glows, like a piece of iron fresh from a forge.