Popular Science

Venus may once have been habitable. Now it can tell us if other worlds might be as well.

It’s time to return to our hellish neighbor.

an artist's depiction of ancient Venus

This is what an ancient, watery Venus might have looked like.

NASA

In his 1954 novel Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined seas filled with life and underwater cities on our neighboring planet. It wasn’t long, however, before we discovered what really lurks beneath Venus’s thick cloud cover. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States' and Soviet Union's spacecraft found a dense, toxic atmosphere on Venus full of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulfuric acid. On the surface, temperatures were hot enough to melt lead, and the crushing pressure was akin to that found in Earth’s deep oceans.

All of this means that Venus is violently hostile to life. Even so, the planet is so similar to our own celestial body in size, makeup, and location that it’s often referred to as Earth’s twin. And in its distant past, it may have been even more Earthlike—scientists now believe that Venus could have once held oceans and a gentler climate.

“People don’t really fully appreciate how similar these two planets are,” says Suzanne Smrekar, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We hear so much about Mars, and yeah, currently its surface temperature is like Earth's. But probably for most of its evolution Venus was much more like the Earth.”

Despite this similarity, it’s been nearly 30 years since the United States sent a mission to Venus. Smrekar and her fellow Venus researchers believe it’s high time we returned. Venus, they argue,

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