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Keep hope alive

August 22nd, 2009

At first glance, through a telescope, Venus looks like it just might be habitable. Earth-like mass. Earth-like size. Close to the Sun, yes, but the white clouds reflect most of the incident sunlight.

A lifetime ago, it was perfectly reasonable to imagine that swampy Devonian-era conditions prevail on Venus. In his remarkable book, Venus Revealed, David Grinspoon recounts an expert opinion voiced by the Nobel-prize winning chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1918:

The humidity is probably about six times the average of that on Earth. We must conclude that everything on Venus is dripping wet. The vegetative processes are greatly accelerated by the high temperature, therefore, the lifetime of organisms is probably short.

There’s definite allure to the watery Venus meme. C.S. Lewis does an interesting treatment in Perelandra. I’ve always liked Ray Bradbury’s vision of Venus in The Long Rain:

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Frustratingly, just as the prospect of interplanetary travel was evolving into a concrete engineering problem, Venus’ spoilsport nature was revealed. In the late 1950s, Venus was observed to be glowing brightly in the microwave region of the spectrum (see, e.g. this article). The immediate — and ultimately correct — interpretation is that the microwaves are the long-wavelength tail of blackbody emission from a lead-melting surface, but at that time, the situation was not entirely clear. Even as the first astronauts were orbiting the Earth, one could optimistically chalk up the Venusian microwaves to phenomena in its ionosphere. (See, for example, this 1963 review). The space race, the cold war, the whole twentieth century would have unfolded very differently had Venus been Earth-like beneath its inscrutable clouds.

August 27, 1962 — Launch of an Atlas Agena B with Mariner 2: Destination Venus.

The microwave radiometer on Mariner 2 brought a quick end to fading hopes of a habitable Venus. Here’s the link to the baleful 1964 summary of the mission results. With the equally bleak assessment of Mars courtesy of Mariner 4, genuinely habitable extraterrestrial worlds in the solar system were a no-go. The space race fizzled out. Now we’re looking at retro-futuristic voyages to the Moon in the 2020s and dreaming of Alpha Centauri.

Speaking of which, two recent theoretical papers have come down on the pro-planet side of the ongoing terrestrial-planets-orbiting-Alpha-Centauri debate. In an article that’ll be on astro-ph within the next day or so, Payne, Wyatt and Thebault suggest that outward migration of planetary embryos in the Alpha Cen B protoplanetary disk can provide a mechanism for circumventing the problems associated with habitable planet formation in the binary environment. In the second paper (posted to astro-ph earlier this year) Xie and Zhou argue that a modest inclination between Alpha Cen A’s proptoplanetary disk and Alpha Cen B’s orbit can also tip the balance quite significantly in favor of terrestrial planet accretion around A (and with similar logic applying to planet formation around B).

Last November, in the comments section to the Alpha Cen Bb post, I was asked:

What do you think the odds now are of there being a planet somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system?

I answered:

Hazarding a guess, I’d say 60%. A better answer might be, “High enough to warrant mounting an inexpensive (in comparison to most other planet-search efforts in operation or contemplation) ground-based search.”

I’d like to raise those odds to 68.3%.

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  1. August 23rd, 2009 at 10:32 | #1

    Then again, if we are prepared to relax the requirement that the habitable regions of the planet must coincide with the surface of the planet, Venus does have a potentially habitable region 50km up in the atmosphere. It’s a region that probably should be explored better, e.g. by balloon probes, which if nothing else would be a useful test for balloon missions to Titan. Enough with the Mars missions already!

  2. August 23rd, 2009 at 21:51 | #2

    As for Alpha Centauri planets, have any simulations been done of planet formation taking into account delivery of water? If planets can only form in the inner region, then subsequently migrate out to the habitable zone, won’t they likely end up very dry?

  3. August 26th, 2009 at 05:05 | #3

    The water can outgas from the mantle, just like it does on Earth…

  4. August 26th, 2009 at 16:56 | #4

    The question is whether there would be much water in the mantle, if you form the planets from material located much closer to the star than the HZ…

  5. September 14th, 2009 at 17:48 | #5

    I’ve often wondered how the Solar System would have looked had Venus and Mars have been ‘swapped’ right at the beginning and allowed to go on their evolutionary paths. Obviously this is pure speculation on my part. The ‘new’ second planet would have been even less able to hold onto an atmosphere in the increased thermal environment. However, the ‘new’ more massive fourth planet would have had a far better chance at holding down an atmosphere and developing. So then, result: two inner airless terrestrials, the Earth followed by a more massive colder version of Earth?

    I’m sure such systems exist out there…

  6. October 9th, 2009 at 14:23 | #6

    The following text by Russian astronomer G.A. Tikhoff, 1955 is also included in the above-mentioned book (it is one book which I find I return to very often):

    “Now already we can say a few things about the vegetation of Venus. Owing to the high temperature on this planet, the plants must reflect all the heat rays, of which those visible to the eye are the rays from red to green inclusive. This gives the plants a yellow hue. In addition, the plants must radiate red rays. With the yellow, this gives them an orange color. Our conclusions concerning the color of vegetation on Venus find certain confirmation in the observation… that in those parts of Venus where the Sun’s rays possibly penetrate the clouds to be reflected by the planet’s surface, there is a surplus of yellow and red rays.”

  7. Tim811
    December 23rd, 2009 at 20:40 | #7

    There’s a great retro-pulp scifi novel on the topic of an inhabitable Venus that came out not that long ago.

    It’s titled “The Sky People” by S.M. Stirling

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