Character Of The Surface

The high atmospheric pressure, the low wind velocities, and, in particular, the extremely high temperatures create a surface environment on Venus that is markedly different from any other in the solar system. A series of landings by robotic Soviet spacecraft in the 1970s and early '80s provided detailed data on surface composition and appearance. Views of the Venusian landscape, typified in colour images obtained by the Soviet Union's Venera 13 lander in 1982, show rocky plains that stretch toward the horizon. Despite the heavy cloud cover, the surface is well illuminated by the yellow-orange light that filters through the clouds.

The most striking characteristic of the surface at the Venera 13 site and most other Venera landing sites is the flat, slabby, layered nature of the rocks. Both volcanic and sedimentary rocks on Earth can develop such an appearance under appropriate conditions, but the reason that the Venusian rocks have done so is not known with certainty. Also present among the rocks is a darker, fine-grained soil. The grain size of the soil is unknown, but some of it was fine enough to be lifted briefly into the atmosphere by the touchdown of the Venera lander, which suggests that some grains are no more than a few tens of micrometres in diameter. Scattered throughout the soil and atop the rocks are pebble-size particles that could be either small rocks or clods of soil.

The general surface appearance at the Venera landing sites is probably common on Venus, but it is likely not representative of all locations on the planet. Radar data from the U.S. Magellan spacecraft, which studied Venus from orbit in the early 1990s, provided global information about the roughness of the Venusian surface at scales of metres to tens of metres. Although much of the planet is indeed covered by lowland plains that appear smooth to radar, some terrains were found to be very much rougher. These include areas covered by ejecta (the material expelled from impact craters and extending around them), steep slopes associated with tectonic activity, and some lava flows. How such terrains would appear from a lander's perspective is not known, but large boulders and other sorts of angular blocks presumably would be more common than at the Venera sites.

Surface Composition

A number of the Soviet landers carried instruments to analyze the chemical composition of the surface materials of Venus. Because only the relative proportions of a few elements were measured, no definitive information exists concerning the rock types or minerals present. Two techniques were used to measure the abundances of various elements. Gamma-ray spectrometers, which were carried on the Soviet Venera 8, 9, and 10 missions and the landers of the Soviet Vega 1 and 2 missions, measured the concentrations of naturally radioactive isotopes of the elements uranium, potassium, and thorium. X-ray fluorescence instruments, carried on Veneras 13 and 14 and Vega 2, measured the concentrations of a number of major elements.

The Venera 8 site gave indications that the rock composition may be similar to that of granite or other igneous rocks that compose Earth's continents. This inference, however, was based only on rather uncertain measurements of the concentrations of a few radioactive elements. Measurements of radioactive elements at the Venera 9 and 10 and Vega 1 and 2 landing sites suggested that the compositions there resemble those of basalt rocks found on Earth's ocean floors and in some volcanic regions such as

Hawaii and Iceland. The Venera 13 and 14 and Vega 2 X-ray instruments measured concentrations of silicon, aluminum, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, titanium, manganese, and sulfur. Although some differences in composition were seen among the three sites, on the whole the elemental compositions measured by all three landers were similar to those of basalts on Earth.

A surprising result of orbital radar observations of Venus is that the highest elevations on the planet exhibit anomalously high radar reflectivity. The best interpretation seems to be that the highest elevations are coated with a thin layer of some semiconducting material. Its composition is unknown, but it could be an iron-containing mineral such as pyrite or magnetite, which formed at cooler, higher elevations from low concentrations of atmospheric iron (II) chloride vapour in the atmosphere.

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