The Winds of Venus

Venus rarely makes the scientific news let alone mainstream media. When scientists discuss space and technology, they talk about traveling to, stepping foot on, colonizing and terraforming Mars. It is the focus of plans like Mars Direct and Mars One.

The scientific community has been ignoring Venus, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. Not including flybys, from the start of the history of space exploration, there have been twenty-three successful probe missions to Venus, twenty of them before 1990. There have been only three missions to Venus since 2000 and none in the 1990s. Of those three missions to Venus in the 2000s, one was the Venus Express, from the European Union Space Agency, and two were Japanese. NASA has not taken another serious look at Venus and the only operational probe is the Japanese Akatsuki orbital.

For Mars, the story is different. From the beginning, there have been twenty-nine successful missions to Mars, not including flybys, fifteen of them from after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are currently eight operational probes. The earliest one is Mars Odyssey, an orbiter launched April of 2003. The latest is NASA’s InSight lander launched in May of 2018.

However, could Venus be a viable solution for the problem of being a single planet species? Is it a good place to colonize?

The best places to live in the solar system needs specific qualities. Human colonies need approximate Earth gravity, temperature, and atmospheric pressure; that is the sweet spot for human habitability. The lack of gravity causes the loss of bone density and muscle mass. If it’s too hot, we will burn or too cold, we will freeze. No atmospheric pressure means colonists will need pressure suits and specifically built habitats.

The significant issue with space travel is excessive periods of living in low gravity, which has ill effects on muscle and bone density. The longer a human exists in a low gravity environment, the greater the chance they have for long term bone and muscle problems. There are also no studies about the effects on a child born in a low gravity environment.

There are no other celestial bodies in the solar system with those conditions. However, what do we know about Venus and Mars? Gone are the assumptions from 1950s science fiction authors that Venus is full of tropical jungles and Mars is crisscrossed with canals.

Venus is closer to Earth than Mars which makes it easier to travel to Venus with a launch window every 584 days instead of the 780 days for Mars. It also has a mass closer to Earth’s at 0.815 Earths, while Mars is at 0.107 Earths. (“Earth” is a unit of measurement to describe multiple factors). Venus’s gravity is closer to Earth’s at 0.904g’s than Mars at 0.38g’s (1.0g is what is felt on Earth).

With the problems of space travel, Venus seems like it is the better candidate for colonization. However, those numbers do not tell the full story. The mean surface temperature on Venus is a cool 464 degrees Celsius. For comparison, lead melts at 327.5 degrees Celsius. Atmospheric pressure at the surface of Venus is 91 atmospheres. That’s 92 times the air pressure felt on the surface of Earth. For comparison, the same amount of pressure is felt at a depth of 940 meters under the sea.

Mars, on the other hand, has a mean surface temperature of a balmy -63 degrees Celsius. This is equivalent to Antarctica with its mean annual temperature of -57 degrees Celsius. The surface pressure is 0.00628 atmospheres. This is the same atmospheric pressure felt on Earth at 46 thousand meters.

When it comes to figuring out how to live on the surface of either Venus or Mars, engineering solutions for low air pressure and freezing temperature seem easier than the opposite. Most probes landing on the surface of Venus only last a few hours before the heat and high pressure destroys them. However, when many futurists talk about colonizing Venus, they don’t talk about landing colonists on the surface. According to a 2002 paper from NASA titled, “Atmospheric Flight on Venus,” fifty kilometers up from the surface, the situation on Venus change. The temperature lowers to 70 degrees Celsius. Five more kilometers up and the temperature lowers further to 27 degrees Celsius. At the same altitude, the air pressure lowers from the certain death of 91 atmospheres to be an Earth-like pressure of 1 atmosphere.

The numbers point to two important words that come to mind: Cloud City. Living with a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius is possible. It means using air conditioning in the habitats and a cooling suit outside. While building a giant floating metropolis is outside the reach of current technology, according to the paper “The Venus Sweet Spot: Floating Home,” it’s possible with current technology to build zipline-style settlements using helium and breathable air as its lifting gas. These ships can be built on Earth, shipped to Venus then set up in the atmosphere riding the winds of Venus. Once there, they can either stay there or head back to Earth. This strategy will put a long-term human settlement on Venus

Cloud City would not be a self-sufficient settlement with regular shipments of supplies from Earth. The weight would be an issue on the floating cities and having large sections for food production would have to be carefully balanced. The colony would be permanent and a vital place where scientific research is completed, and methods of colonization are engineered. Once scientists and researchers are living and working on Venus, they can study the planet and answer some questions plaguing humanity. What happened to Venus? Was it really a cool and wet world? Is there a way to reverse the planet? Can we use any new scientific advances we learn on Venus to help our Earth?

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