Kate HowellsDec 29, 2023

How do we see the surface of Venus from space?

Venus is good at keeping the secrets of its surface. The planet is perpetually shrouded in a layer of clouds, with an extremely thick carbon dioxide atmosphere. Observing Venus in visible light, those clouds are all you’d see.

Global view of Venus from Mariner 10
Global view of Venus from Mariner 10 This view is processed from 78 Mariner 10 frames captured through orange and ultraviolet filters. It is intended to look approximately natural in color, though the use of the ultraviolet images makes cloud patterns more visible than they would be to the human eye. Processed by Mattias Malmer.Image: NASA / JPL / Mattias Malmer

Although four spacecraft have made it to the surface of Venus and survived long enough to return images, most observations of the planet’s surface have come from spacecraft in orbit. To see the surface of Venus from space, instruments must peer through the atmosphere.

Radar, for example, can penetrate the thick clouds to see the surface below. Imaging radar sends out pulses of energy in radio frequencies (also called radar signals). These signals travel through space and through the atmosphere, then bounce off the materials they encounter on the surface. The spacecraft then collects the signals that have been bounced back to it and analyzes them. Different materials — rock, liquids, ice, etc — reflect radar waves differently, indicating the characteristics of the surface. And based on the time it takes for the radar signals to travel to the surface and back, the data can show differences in elevation, allowing for a three-dimensional map. 

Venus's surface from radar data
Venus's surface from radar data This 3D image of Venus’ surface was generated using radar data from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft. The 3-kilometer-tall volcano Gula Mons can be seen on the horizon, along with the 48-kilometer-wide Cunitz crater at near-center.Image: NASA

Missions that have imaged Venus’ surface

Using radar imaging techniques, several missions have imaged Venus’ surface from space over the past 50 years.

In 1978, NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter entered into orbit around Venus carrying 17 experiments, including a surface radar mapper. It used this instrument to examine the planet’s topography and surface characteristics, though not at high resolution.

In 1983, the Soviet Venera 15 and Venera 16 spacecraft arrived in orbit around Venus, equipped with more sophisticated radar imaging instruments. The images they returned had a resolution of 1-2 kilometers (0.62-1.24 miles), providing the first detailed maps of much of the surface of Venus and discovering massive, apparently dormant volcanoes.

NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, which arrived at Venus in 1990, made the first global map of the planet. Magellan mapped 98% of the surface with a resolution of approximately 100 meters. The mission produced surprising findings about Venus, including a relatively young planetary surface possibly formed by lava flows from planet-wide volcanic eruptions.

Venus surface from Pioneer, Venera, and Magellan Missions
Venus surface from Pioneer, Venera, and Magellan Missions This image of Venus's surface was created by combining data from the Pioneer, Venera, and Magellan missions.Image: NASA

The maps that Magellan generated are still the most detailed in existence — although other missions such as Venus Express and Akatsuki have studied Venus’ atmosphere and measured some surface characteristics like temperature, no other mission has conducted a detailed study of the planet’s surface topography since Magellan.

Upcoming Venus surface imaging missions

India aims to launch a Venus orbiter called Shukrayaan in December 2024 equipped with a radar and infrared camera to map the surface.

NASA's DAVINCI mission will launch no earlier than 2029. It consists of an orbiter and an atmospheric descent probe, and will take high-resolution images of Venus’ surface, particularly focusing on features called tesserae — strange, wrinkled landforms that we do not fully understand.

The European Space Agency's EnVision mission, which is set to launch no earlier than 2031, will send an orbiter to conduct a comprehensive study of Venus, from the core all the way to its upper atmosphere. The spacecraft will use a high-resolution radar to map surface landforms, including tesserae.

The most detailed surface mapping will come from NASA's VERITAS orbiter, which will launch no earlier than 2031. It will have a radar instrument with up to 100 times higher resolution than Magellan. This will give scientists highly detailed maps of the surface, providing valuable insights into Venus’ geology and evolution.

VERITAS will provide greatly improved surface resolution of Venus
VERITAS will provide greatly improved surface resolution of Venus This image represents the predicted improvement in surface resolution that the VERITAS mission will provide compared to the Magellan mission from 1989.Image: Sue Smrekar

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