Dreams of an Earth-like Venus
June 29, 2020 9:48 PM   Subscribe

In November 1959, balloonists on Strato-Lab IV reached an altutide of 81,000 feet (25,000 m) to perform spectrographic analysis of Venus (Wikipedia), which was reported on in Life magazine a month later, with the article "Target: Venus—There May Be Life There" (Google books), and fostered the dream that "life—even as we know it on earth—may exist on Venus." Three years later, Mariner crushed those dreams (NASA), but what about the Venus of the past? The Romantic Venus We Never Knew—Venus used to be as fit for life as Earth (David Grinspoon, Nautilus).

For some, like astrobiologist David Grinspoon, Russian photos from the surface of Venus from Venera-9 (Mental Landscape) kindled dreams of an Earth-like planet. "A bright patch of sky made it seem much less unearthly than the Apollo moon shots I had obsessed over, and more like a strange, overcast desert land that you might hope to visit someday." But if you want to visit a desert, you better bring some water. Speaking of which ...

Where is the water on Venus? (Vanderbilt University AST101 reading)
Given that Venus has the same CO2 budget as the Earth, and approximately the same nitrogen budget as the Earth (to within a factor of 3), and under the assumption that carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water were all delivered to the young Earth and Venus by comets, Venus should have approximately as much water as does the Earth. Yet Venus is bone dry.

Deuterium: the missing link

Remember that elements can have several different isotopes. The properties of atoms are determined by the numbers of protons and electrons they have, not by the number of neutrons. Normally, hydrogen has 1p + 1e. Deuterium is hydrogen with one neutron added to the nucleus. Tritium is hydrogen with two neutrons. All three behave as normal hydrogen but deuterium and tritium are more massive, or heavier, isotopes of hydrogen.

Water, we all know, is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, H2O. However, we could make heavy water using deuterium or tritium. We could write one of these as HDO. Nature has seen fit to make about one in every 10,000 hydrogen atoms deuterium. Since each water molecule has two hydrogen isotopes, one in every 5,000 water molecules should have a deuterium atom. For some perspective, it is important to note that all materials on Earth with hydrogen have the same ratio of dueterium to hydrogen (D/H); in addition, moon rocks, all meteorites and comets have the same D/H ratio as that of Earth. And as best as we can tell, the D/H ratio also is the same in the atmospheres of the giant planets, in the Sun, in the material between the stars, everywhere. This is because all the D and H in the universe formed in the first moments of the Big Bang. While all other elements are created in stars through nuclear fusiion, no new D or H has been created since the beginning of the universe.
Before all that H2O evaporated (Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy), leaving behind HDO, there are studies and considerations about prehistoric Venusian Habitable Climate Scenarios (abstract; full paper, PDF), a theory that Grinspoon also supports, as seen in a number of his scientific papers and illustrated for NASA.

And by considering Venus' past, the habitable zone can be expanded (Planetary Habitability Laboratory).
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I used venerable AskMe answer All Summer in a Day in class last year with my students. One of the fun topics in class was how time and further understanding of the universe can otherwise affect older works. For them (15 year olds), they'd never known any kind of world where people believed life could have existed on Venus, and it was an initial barrier for them in getting into the story.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:58 PM on June 29 [5 favorites]

Thank you FLT, Terraforming Venus is my favorite daydream genre.
posted by compound eye at 10:35 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]

I occasionally wonder at how much easier space projects would be if earth had a bit less mass... Venus gives the counterpoint: a bit less mass, and you get no magnetic field, and die of solar radiation.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:39 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]

Between Planets was a significant turn toward jingoism in Heinlein's YA. But it was a helluva adventure for a kid and I loved the world building. And the possibility of intelligent life across the solar system.

(The colonial imperialism not so such - humans' relationship to the intelligent amphibious aliens. Yikes. Humans used tobacco with them like white invaders of the American West used alcohol with Native Americans. Racial superiority and manifest destiny were so subconsciously imprinted in the American psyche.)
posted by j_curiouser at 10:47 PM on June 29 [2 favorites]

Thank you FLT, Terraforming Venus is my favorite daydream genre.

You may have to settle for veneriforming Earth. Luckily, we're fairly well advanced with this.
posted by acb at 5:03 AM on June 30 [12 favorites]

I found out recently that the dying Mars, jungle/wet Venus trope was based on a scientific theory that planets cooled from the outside of the solar system to the inside, and then it was optimized for stories.

Old Venus is a collection of stories by contemporary authors using the pulp tropes.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:19 AM on June 30 [4 favorites]

My utter favorite plans is Colonizing Venus with Giant Balloons
posted by sammyo at 5:21 AM on June 30 [9 favorites]

I remember seeing those Soviet Venera photos when they were published. So exciting!

Sigh. Poor Venus. A great planet for us in many ways: good size, sunward, not too far away. Except that it's a giant oven with acid.
posted by doctornemo at 7:50 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]

that video that sammyo linked is delightful and i may have a new favorite youtuber.

i just wanna bring over some of the comments from that video, because, well, i lol'ed:

there's the obvious one:
  • Floating cloud cities are always fun until somebody loses a hand in a lightsaber duel.
but then there's also
  • Earth has a... Hot Sister. YEEEAAAAAAAHHHHH
which well i'm embarrassed by how much i giggled at that but well i did
and finally my favorite:
  • Its disappointing that people fund crap like space exploration while Kanye is 53 mil in debt. We gotta choose whats really important here guys
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:21 AM on June 30 [4 favorites]

As a kid, I read Cosmos and was enormously impressed by some before-and-after photos of an ordinary hard hat melting into a huge Hershey's Kiss after a few minutes' exposure to the temperatures of Venus. I got the idea that Venus's surface temperature was like a 450-degree oven, and when I stood in front of the open oven door, I could feel what it would be like to be on another planet, just for a moment. But I've since learned that 450 Fahrenheit would have to be a pretty chilly evening on Venus.

I like thinking about the idea of people building a cloud city on Venus, up where it's balmy. It's one of those things that the human race is just absolutely never going to get its shit together to learn how to do, but the logistics are amusing to contemplate.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:12 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]

the excellent (if a bit... elaborate...) board game "terraforming mars" has an expansion called "venus next," which is... well, what you'd expect from the name: it adds a bunch of new cards that are about the opening stages of human development on venus. the one negative thing i can say about it is that the game designers picked a really unfortunate name for the venusian balloon habitats.

floaters. they called them floaters.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:22 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]

A Lovecraft story where a prospector encounters the aborigines of the planet Venus. (according to the intro). There's no way that's not a zenophobic dumpster fire.
posted by chromecow at 10:55 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]

A Lovecraft story where a prospector encounters the aborigines of the planet Venus.

The one HPL actually wrote, "In the Walls of Eryx," does have some lizardmen, but the fire does not consume them, as it were.
posted by doctornemo at 11:26 AM on June 30

Thought experiments about terraforming other planets are always fun because the engineering challenges involved will never, ever be less difficult than engineering something on Earth.

You could build a self-sustaining colony in the Mariana Trench for cheaper than building one on Mars, simply because the Mariana Trench is here on Earth.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:29 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

*agh why did they have to call them floaters*

But still, I'm 100% Team Venusian Blimpscape. Sun's closer, you've got your large surface<>blimpwelt temperature differential, gravity's a little lower so Venusian basketball could truly come into it's own... the whole "ship compressed air from Earth" bit seems a bit dodgy, though.
posted by runehog at 2:05 PM on June 30 [2 favorites]

Eh, we capture some suitable comets. And make the blimp balloons out of unitary evacuated rock crystal.
posted by clew at 3:33 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

The fire is about to consume them. The final report says they are going to take his suggestion and wipe all the lizard-men out.
posted by Windopaene at 4:40 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]

Lovecraft wrote a Venus story

Gol-dang millenials snake people are killing the Venusian explorer industry
posted by FatherDagon at 1:17 PM on July 1

There's an unbelievably terrible Venus-exploration story by, IIRC, one of the rich Astors, in which the main point of going to Venus is big game hunting, and even that is dull. The chapter headings are long and repetitive enough to be tendentious and dull.
posted by clew at 10:32 AM on July 2

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