NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 with the objective of studying the surface of the Sun and its atmosphere. In order to get close enough to the Sun, the probe is getting a gravity assist from Venus, passing close enough to Venus to use its gravity for acceleration. Scientists have also been using these close approaches as an opportunity to study the atmosphere and surface of Venus. To date, five flybys of Venus have occurred. The probe is equipped with a camera called the Wide-Field Imager, which has successfully detected thermal emissions from the planet’s surface while the probe was on the night side of Venus.
Venus is called Earth’s twin due to its similar size and composition, but the geologic histories of Venus and Earth diverged. Venus became inhospitable to life and surrounded by a nearly impenetrable layer of poisonous clouds, while Earth became capable of sustaining complex life. This dichotomy has fueled decades of scientific research to better understand the evolution of Venus.
The first images of Venus collected by the Parker Solar Probe were intended to be used to study the speed of clouds in the atmosphere. Scientists were excited when the Wide-Field Imager exceeded their expectations and captured images of the planet’s surface instead. These thermal images can help place better compositional constraints on the geology of Venus because, when heated, different materials emit energy in different wavelengths, thus making them diagnostic of different rock types. Furthermore, these images of the surface included features that were detectable in the visible wavelength range. The Parker Solar Probe’s last opportunity to image the night side of Venus is scheduled for November 2024, and images collected will complement the infrared imaging capabilities of the recently selected DAVINCI and VERITAS missions to Venus. READ MORE