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The Forgotten Planet

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"It is a cool planet with a hot atmosphere," said Dr. Pete Mouginis-Mark. He was speaking of Venus, the second planet from the Sun, during a recent seminar at the University of Hawaii. Even though it is a cool place to visit, albeit very hot with a surface temperature of 470 C, it has not fared well in the high-stakes game of planetary exploration. "Venus was targeted by one-quarter of the 28 proposals in NASA's latest Discovery competition. None were finalists," said Mouginis-Mark, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.

"The last mission to Venus from the United States was 1994, and there is one orbiter from Europe there now. One from Japan might orbit in 2015." Despite the fact that a few Russian craft touched down on the surface and took a few pictures before burning up, "we know very little about the surface of Venus at the present time. Is there any current geological activity? Quakes or surface flows, for example. The hot environment gives us interesting new geology," said Mouginis-Mark.

There is lots to explore- since it is devoid of water, Venus has three times the land area of Earth. "The scales on Venus are huge compared to what we are used to on Earth." Mouginis-Mark is keen on getting another American spacecraft to the planet, but admits 2018 would be the earliest possible return date. With the  Obama Administration cut to the planetary exploration budget announced in February 2012, even that date is highly unlikely.

One of the objectives often touted for a return to Venus is what its runaway greenhouse effect might tell us about the fate of Earth's environment. Mouginis-Mark discounts this as a "nonsensical objective because the planets are so different."  It may very well be this factor that has directed NASA's budget to concentrate on other solar system objects such as Mars and the asteroids. The high heat and pressure at the surface of Venus means humans will almost certainly never be able to land there, whereas Mars presents a relatively favorable environment.

Whatever the reasons, it seems certain that the heavy clouds that forever obscure Venus from prying eyes will keep its secrets locked away for a very long time.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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