Object lesson No 46 Venus

26th January 2001 at 00:00
The most romantic thing about the planet Venus is its name. The rest is, frankly, a bit of a passion killer. Anybody on the surface would quickly become hot, squashed and dead. The "air" is 96 per cent carbon dioxide and the atmospheric pressure is 90 times that of Earth. The temperature is an arid 460c and the view, as you lie on your back feeling the last breath leaving your body, is of sulphuric acid clouds.

So what has this inhospitable lump got to do with love and female beauty? (No sarky comments, please.) Well, Venus is the brightest natural object in the night sky after the Moon. The Babylonians, impressed by this luminosity, adopted it as the "star" of the goddess Ishtar. The Greeks called Ishtar Aphrodite, and the Romans went from Aphrodite to Venus. Simple, really.

For a while people thought the second planet from the sun was likely to have a lot in common with the next one along - Earth. The two are about the same size and mass and both consist of iron cores surrounded by molten rocky mantels. Venus, like Earth, has a relatively young surface pock-marked with volcanoes. But that's about it for similarities.

Venus rotates on its ais incredibly slowly, which means that one Venusian day lasts 243 Earth ones. The dense atmosphere and thick clouds make for a greenhouse effect so severe it might even persuade George W Bush to leave his limo in the presidential car port. The hottest planet in the solar system, Venus probably once had water - until it all boiled away. And it would be no good expecting winter to provide respite as there are no seasons.

Venus can come within a hair's breadth of Earth - well, 42 million kilometres - a galactic gulf crossed in 1962 by the Mariner 2 probe. In 1966, the Soviet Union's Venera 3 became the first spacecraft to crash into a planet; in 1970, Venera 7 landed successfully, leaving it to Venera 9 to take the first pictures of the surface.

And, carrying on the Babylonian tradition, that surface has been named after women. For example, there's Aphrodite Terra, Guinevere Planitia and Lakshmi Planum after the Hindu goddess of prosperity. Let's hope all the prominent features have been taken care of. The appearance of a Posh Plateau or Princess Royal Rift Valley would ensure there really was no romance left on this world - or the next.

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