Scientists were surprised to discover that the Venusian atmosphere looks very different now, and they published their findings Monday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The solar mission, which launched in 2018, is intended to study the sun and unravel some of its mysteries. The probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere over the course of seven years and come closer to the surface of our star than any spacecraft before it.
Venus is instrumental to the probe’s success. The spacecraft uses the gravity of Venus as it swings around the planet, called a gravity assist, to help bend the probe’s orbit and bring it closer and closer to the sun. Both planets are rocky and similar in size, but something happened to cause Earth and Venus to develop differently. Unlike Earth, Venus doesn’t have a magnetic field. Its inhospitable surface has blazing temperatures that can melt lead.
The information gathered by Parker so far about Venus is helping scientists to understand why it’s so different from Earth, even though the planets are often referred to as twins. Attempts to study Venus using spacecraft are tricky, because they can only survive for a couple of hours at most if they try to descend to the surface. Previous missions to explore Venus include NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter from 1978 to 1992 and the European Space Agency’s Venus Express from 2005 to 2014, both of which orbited the planet.
The spacecraft also snapped an amazing image that shows an unexpected side of our planetary neighbor. This was the third Venus gravity assist for the Parker Solar Probe. During the flyby, the probe came within 517 miles (833 kilometers) of the planet’s surface. During one of these Venusian flybys on July 11, 2020, the probe collected evidence that Venus’ upper atmosphere goes through some unusual changes that are influenced by the solar cycle, or our sun’s 11-year activity cycle.
During the third Venus flyby, Parker Solar Probe’s FIELDS instrument, which measures electric and magnetic fields in the sun’s atmosphere, detected a natural radio signal at a low frequency. This appeared as a “frown” in the data from FIELDS. But understanding why Venus became this way can help scientists determine why some Earth-like planets appear habitable while others don’t.
This same sort of frown would appear in Galileo data when the spacecraft passed through the ionospheres of Jupiter’s moons, Collinson noted. “I was just so excited to have new data from Venus,” said Glyn Collinson, lead study author and research associate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement. “To see Venus now, it’s all about these little glimpses.” Collinson, a Venusian expert who has studied data from previous missions to the planet, thought the signal seemed familiar. He previously worked on the Galileo orbiter, which studied Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003.
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