Europe is sending a probe to Venus, teaming up with NASA to rocket 3 missions to the planet in the next 15 years

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An illustration of the EnVision spacecraft with Earth (left) and Venus (right).

After decades of gazing longingly at Mars, the world’s space agencies are finally turning back to look at Venus.

Last week NASA announced that it had picked two new missions to go to Venus – one, called VERITAS, to orbit the planet and another, called DAVINCI+, to plunge to its surface. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) is throwing its hat in the ring.

The ESA revealed Thursday that it’s sending its own probe to Venus – an orbiter called EnVision. The mission aims to study how the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and interior interact to create the infernal pressure cooker it is today. Together, the three probes spell a renaissance in Venutian science.

“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbor awaits us,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a press release. “Together with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program at this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.”

The NASA missions are set to launch between 2028 and 2030, and the ESA probe sometime in the early 2030s.

Venus’ climate became hellish long ago, but it may have hosted life

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A composite image of Venus from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter.

Venus used to be a lot like Earth. The two planets are about the same size, and they’re made of the same material. Scientists think Venus could have even had oceans in the distant past.

But something happened that drastically changed Venus’ climate. Today it’s the hottest planet in our solar system, thick with yellow, heat-trapping clouds of sulfuric acid. Its average surface temperature is a blistering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and its crushing air pressure is more than 90 times that of Earth’s.

The upcoming missions could help scientists understand how Venus became such an extreme environment, whether it was hospitable to life, and whether or not its volcanoes are still erupting.

The world’s interest in Venus was rekindled in September, when a new study suggested the planet’s clouds could harbor microbial aliens.

That’s because researchers found traces of phosphine – a gas typically produced by microbes on Earth – in the upper reaches of Venus’ clouds. However, a follow-up study suggested those trace elements weren’t phosphine, but rather sulfur dioxide, casting doubt on the idea that Venus could be habitable.

These new missions could help settle that debate.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface, all the way down to its very core,” Tom Wagner, a NASA Discovery Program scientist, said in a statement about the NASA missions. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

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New images reveal Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and its smaller counterpart, Red Spot Jr., in stunning detail

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Three images of Jupiter show the gas giant in different types of light: infrared (left), visible, and ultraviolet (right).

  • Two telescopes have captured stunning images of Jupiter in regular, infrared, and ultraviolet light.
  • The images can help astronomers study storms and hot spots in the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Infrared imaging revealed that Jupiter’s shrinking Great Red Spot is riddled with holes.
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Jupiter looks good in all kinds of light.

A set of images released Tuesday show the planet in infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. The combination reveals Jupiter’s characteristic Great Red Spot – a cyclonic storm large enough to engulf the Earth – in stunning detail. Also visible in the photos is the Great Red Spot’s smaller counterpart, aptly nicknamed Red Spot Jr. That storm, whose scientific name is Oval BA, appears to the bottom right of the Great Red Spot in the visible-light and ultraviolet images.

Astronomers were able to photograph Jupiter’s atmosphere in these different wavelengths of light by using both a camera on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and an infrared imager on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The images were first captured on January 11, 2017.

Such photos can help researchers glean new insight into the super-storms, hot spots, and cyclones that define the gas giant’s stormy atmosphere.

The Great Red Spot is riddled with holes

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This infrared view of Jupiter was created from data captured on January 11, 2017 by the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.

The infrared image of Jupiter shows that the cloud cover of the Great Red Spot is full of holes. Through these gaps, heat from the planet’s surface is leaking into the atmosphere.

In visible light, the holes look like swaths of different, darker clouds, but the infrared image confirmed that there aren’t any clouds in those darker patches. They’re just gaps in the giant storm.

“It’s kind of like a jack-o-lantern,” Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said last year.

Wong helped produce the new infrared image of Jupiter. He thinks the Great Red Spot’s mottled visage could be explained by swirling wind currents.

“The closest analog is eddies in the ocean,” he said in a release. “As the storm clouds spin, you can get little anomalies from these eddies that form streaks by just winding up.”

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This visible-light image of Jupiter was created from data captured by a camera on the Hubble Space Telescope on January 11, 2017.

To create the infrared images, Wong’s team used a technique called “lucky imaging.” That’s when a ground telescope takes many short-exposure images of the same spot, and researchers then select the sharpest ones (which are generally taken in moments when Earth’s atmosphere was creating little interference). By stitching together these images of each region, the researchers crafted a portrait of the entire planet.

Keeping tabs on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot using different types of imaging may help solve the mystery of its shrinking. In the 1800s, the Great Red Spot was almost 25,000 miles across. Since then it’s shrunk by 60% – according to Wong’s team, the spot is currently only 10,000 miles wide.

A view of Red Spot Jr.

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This ultraviolet image of Jupiter was created from data captured by a camera on the Hubble Space Telescope on January 11, 2017.

Jupiter’s Red Spot Jr. formed in 2000, when three storms merged together. Although the region appears red in the visible-light image, that’s not always the case – when the spot first formed, it was white. Then it turned red several years later, and in the four years since Hubble took the newly released images, the red spot has changed back to white again.

Although Red Spot Jr. isn’t visible in the infrared-light view of Jupiter, four large hot spots near Jupiter’s equator do appear in the image. Like in the Great Red Spot, these bright patches are regions where heat from the planet below oozes into the atmosphere.

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This infrared view of Jupiter was created from data captured on January 11, 2017 by the international Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.

Another feature visible in the infrared image is a bright streak atop a darker patch in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

This band is likely a giant cyclone, or series of cyclones, nearly 45,000 miles wide.

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Labels added to this Hubble image of Jupiter point out several atmospheric features, including the Great Red Spot, and Red Spot Jr.

At visible wavelengths, the cyclones appears dark brown, so this type of feature is known as a “brown barge.”

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed to this story.

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An astronomer’s colorful animation shows how Saturn’s disappearing rings act like a ‘mini solar system’

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Saturn’s rings, imaged based on radio data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Green indicates regions with particles smaller than 5 centimeters; purple is where no particles are that small. The white area is so dense that it blocked radio signals.

  • Saturn’s seven icy rings each spin at their own speed, behaving like a “mini solar system.”
  • Planetary scientist James O’Donoghue made a beautifully simple animation to show how it works.
  • But the rings are temporary: Saturn is slowly swallowing them, according to O’Donoghue’s research.
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If star-hopping aliens ever visited our solar system, Saturn is probably the planet they’d remember.

The seven giant rings circling its equator make Saturn the most distinct planet orbiting the sun. It may not be obvious in images of the hula-hoop planet, but the ice and rock chunks that make up those rings are circling Saturn at rates nearly 70 times the speed of sound. What’s more, each ring is moving at its own pace.

“In a way, the ring system is like a mini solar system,” James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at Japan’s space agency, JAXA, told Insider. “Objects close to Saturn orbit faster otherwise they would fall in, while objects far away can afford to go slower. This is the same for planets.”

In his free time, O’Donoghue makes animations about physics and the solar system. Some of his others have demonstrated that there’s no “dark side” of the moon, the true center of the solar system isn’t the sun, and Earth has two types of day.

When he put his skills to work to depict Saturn’s rings, O’Donoghue created an animation (below) that shows how the each ring moves through its own motions in a beautiful, circular dance.

In the animation, the line labeled “synchronous orbit” is synced up with the spin of Saturn itself, so it shows which parts of the rings you would see over time if you stood at that spot on the planet.

Saturn’s slowest, outermost ring spins at about 37,000 mph (16.4 kilometers per second) – slower than the rotation of Saturn itself. The innermost chunks of ice and rock shoot through space at about 52,000 mph (23.2 kilometers per second).

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An illustration of Saturn’s rings up close.

Up close, Saturn’s rings aren’t as chaotic as their speeds might make them seem. According to O’Donoghue, grains of ice on neighboring tracks are only moving at a few centimeters per minute relative to each other.

“That speed is like walking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic,” he said on Twitter. “So collisions aren’t very dramatic.”

Saturn is slowly swallowing its rings

In addition to being incredibly fast-moving, Saturn’s rings are very long and thin. If you unfurled them – as O’Donoghue did in the image below – all the planets would fit comfortably within their length.

saturn rings solar system o'donoghue

But in total, the rings have just 1/5,000th the mass of our moon.

“In other words, our moon could be used to make 5,000 Saturn ring systems,” O’Donoghue told Insider. “This highlights how extremely thin and fragile the rings of Saturn are.”

This fragility is a subject of O’Donoghue’s scientific research. In studying Saturn’s upper atmosphere, he and his colleagues found that the rings are slowly disappearing. Thousands of kilograms of ring material rain onto the planet every second. At that rate, the rings shouldn’t last more than 300 million years in their current “full” form, he said.

“Saturn’s ring system is not exactly stable, appearing to be more like a temporary debris field of some ancient moon or comet which got too close and broke apart, rather than a permanent feature,” O’Donoghue added. “We can count ourselves lucky we live in a time when Saturn’s rings have such an enormous presence in the solar system.”

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Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn are clustering in the night sky in a rare, three-planet conjunction event. Here’s how to see it on Monday.

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Saturn (above) and Jupiter (below) in the sky above a church in New York City, December 2020.

Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn are currently clustering together in the night sky.

Monday is the final night that the three planets will be lined up and visible at twilight. They appeared the closest they’d been in more than two decades on Sunday, forming an equilateral triangle.

“This shape is just a blip in time,” Amy Oliver, a spokeswoman for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Boston Globe. “We won’t see it exactly like this ever again, since it probably isn’t going to happen again in this exact same way – at least not in your lifetime.”

An astronomical event in which celestial bodies align like this is called a conjunction. A triple alignment like this is known as a planetary trio.

If you hold your palm up to the sky and all three planets cluster within a circle that fits in the space between your ring finger and your pointer finger, that’s a trio. 

Here’s how to see the planetary trio before it’s gone.

Head out at twilight, and bring binoculars

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The surface of Mercury, as photographed by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974.

On Monday, head out at twilight, between half an hour and 45 minutes after sunset. Look to the southwestern sky. The clearer the sky is, and the father from city lights you are, the easier it will be to see the conjunction. 

Jupiter will look brightest to the naked eye (it’s about 10 times bright than Saturn), followed by Mercury, then Saturn. 

Since Saturn is so dim, it may not be distinguishable from the sun’s afterglow with the naked eye. So the best way to spot the planetary triangle is to focus your eyes on Jupiter, which will be near the top, then point a pair of binoculars at it. Mercury and Saturn should appear in the same binocular field as Jupiter, according to EarthSky

After Monday, Jupiter and Saturn will dip below the horizon and no longer be visible, while Mercury will continue rising in the sky night after night – moving steadily away from the other two planets.

Although the three worlds seem to almost touch during the planetary trio, Jupiter and Saturn are actually separated by almost five times the distance between Earth and the sun. Mercury and Saturn are separated by nearly twice that distance. 

The last time these 3 planets aligned so closely was in 2000

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A photo of Saturn and two of its moons, taken by Voyager 1 in 1980.

Astronomers turned their telescopes skyward last month to catch another conjunction event, when Jupiter and Saturn aligned more closely than they had for centuries.

In the last 2,000 years, there were just two times that Jupiter and Saturn came closer in the sky: One was in 1623, but the sun’s glare made it impossible to see. The other was in 1226. 

Planetary trios, by contrast, are far more common. The last one was in October 2015. Another trio, involving Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, will happen on February 13, according to EarthSky.

The last time Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn formed a triangle was in May 2000.

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