So I guess it’s cool that NASA landed another rover on Mars. Mars, Mars, yappity yap Mars. Everybody loves sending robots to Mars, looking at pictures of Mars, imagining life on Mars, sending men to Mars, writing epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars. It is our testosterone-fueled fantasy world a mere orbit away. It is, according to our dubious and oddly persistant self-help mythology, where men are from.
But we’ve already sent a bunch of rovers to Mars. We’ve got good pictures of Mars. And the new ones coming back from the Curiosity aren’t exactly breaking much new ground yet. So, fellas, hows about we do some recon on one of those other nearby rocky planets. Venus, anyone? After all, the only images we have of the surface of our other planetary neighbor were sent back from a couple orbiting satellites and a few ill-fated 70s and 80s-era Soviet rovers that only lasted an hour or two before crumbling under Venus’s enormous atmospheric pressure and heat.
The USSR undertook a series of missions under the Venera (that’s Venus in Russian) umbrella. Venera-9 was the first to touch down, in 1975. It boasted two optical-mechanical cameras, one of which malfunctioned under the strain of the atmosphere’s intense pressure. The working one managed to scan two nearly complete panoramas of a Venusian hillside; Venera then transmitted the digital video signal to the orbiting spacecraft, which recorded the images on tape.
Feast thine eyes on one of the only respectable images we’ve got of the surface of Venus:
Above, find the lone complete panoramic transmission from the Venera-9. Soviet space historian Don P. Mitchell explains:
Venera-9 was the first lander to photograph the surface of Venus, on October 20, 1975. An optical-mechanical camera, scanning back and forth, returned almost two panoramas of a rocky hillside … A second camera, facing the opposite side, malfunctioned when atmospheric pressure prevented the ejection of its lens cap.
The upper image is the raw 6-bit data. The center images include the telemetry brust replacements, with remaining bursts blacked out. The 6-bit values have been transformed to linear brightness, using the published photometric function of the camera, and then converted to sRGB standard form (gamma 2.2). In the final version, I filled in missing regions, using Bertalmio’s inpainting algorithm.
Yes, the Soviets were the first to send a probe to Venus, to put a satellite in orbit, and the first to land a rover on the planet’s surface.
Here’s an image from Venera-13, a landing module that touched down in 1982. This one stayed in contact with the main orbiting spacecraft for 127 minutes, and sent back this panorama:
Mitchell edited this one up, too:
Finally, we have Venera-15 and 16, twin orbiters that didn’t actually touch down on Mars, but did extensive high-res imaging of the surface. Take it away, Mitchell:
The twin orbiters, Venera-15 and Venera-16, carried out the first high resolution survey of the surface of Venus, using synthetic aperture radar and radar altimetry. Surveying took place from November 11 1983 to July 10 1984, covering the northern cap of the planet down to about 25° latitude … 3200 radar looks were gathered during close approach and transmitted to Earth during the remainder of each orbit. These were assembled into strips and mosaic images (“quads”), seen below at 30 percent of original size.
When stitched together and colorized, those quads look something like this (read Mitchell’s fine in-depth post for the details):
Good stuff, but that’s pretty much what we’ve got. Obviously, Venus’s crushing, uber-hot atmosphere makes landing a rover there for more extensive exploration exponentially tougher than on Mars. But we could do it, if we wanted to—NASA has a proposal for a nuclear-powered rover that cuts through the thick atmosphere by relaying data to a solar-powered airplane which transmits it to an orbiter. If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching NASA successfully navigate the Curiosity’s seven minutes of terror, it’s that this kind of feat is at least plausible—we just need the interest, the will, and, obviously, the funding.