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Through the clouds

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					Through the clouds                                                                            LEFT: A probe releases a parachute to slow it down
                                                                                              as it descends towards the surface of Venus.


                                 Finally your spaceship goes into orbit                       Under the murky yellow sky, a desert of
                                 around Venus. With the rocket engines                        brown rock stretches in all directions.
                                 turned off, you find yourself weightless                     Blues and greens – the colours of water
                                 again. Smoggy clouds completely hide                         and life – are completely missing. But the
                                 Venus’ surface, so you have no idea what might               ground is far from flat. There are rolling hills,
                                 lurk beneath. Before risking a descent into the              mountain ranges and the unmistakable cone
                                 unknown, you decide to send a space probe.                   shapes of volcanoes. Directly below is a huge
                                                                                              volcano belching smoke into the air. The crater in its
                                 The probe’s temperature shoots up as it ploughs into         peak is brimming with glowing orange lava, and
                                 the upper atmosphere. The intense heat suggests that         waterfalls of lava are cascading down its side.
                                 Venusian air must be much more dense than Earth’s.                                                                        ABOVE: If the clouds were stripped
                                 Chemical sensors indicate that the choking air is            Suddenly lightning is flashing everywhere and the probe’s    away from Venus, this is what the
                                 96 per cent carbon dioxide.                                  camera begins to shake wildly. Its microphones pick up the     planet would look like. The pale
                                                                                              fierce crash of thunder – yet there are no storm clouds.       areas are highlands. The darker
                                 After the probe has entered the atmosphere, the heat         Soon the probe drops out of this mysterious zone of            areas are flat plains that stretch
                                 begins to fade. The probe releases a parachute to slow its   lightning with no storms.                                         for thousands of kilometres.
                                 fall and its camera switches on. Suddenly you see thick
                                 yellow clouds rushing upwards on your monitor. Unlike        At last, the probe hits the ground with a jolt. The
                                 Earth’s clouds of water, these are made of sulphuric acid.   temperature reached a searing 475ºC (890ºF) during the
                                                                                              fall – much hotter than an oven – but now it’s too high
                                 Several minutes later the probe breaks out of the clouds     for the probe to measure. Venus’ surface is not just hot         BELOW: This 3-D view across
ABOVE: Venus is a world of       and into clear air. Now you can see all the way to the       enough to fry an egg, it’s hot enough to melt your probe!        Venus was generated from
volcanoes. Perhaps there are     ground, but the picture is blurred by a shimmering heat      Seconds later, the picture on the monitor disappears.              data sent to Earth by the
‘waterfalls’ of lava on Venus,   haze. As the probe falls further, the strange Venusian                                                                        Magellan space probe. The
like this one on Hawaii.         landscape gradually begins to clear.                                                                                            tall peaks are volcanoes.

				
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posted:12/18/2011
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