National Geographic : 1993 Feb
Venus Revea ed By WILLIAM NEWCOTT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EDITORIAL STAFF Images by NASA/JET PROPULSION LABORATORY She yielded her secrets reluctantly. Our nearest neighbor, the planet Venus - nearly identical to Earth in size and density-veils herself in clouds and a crushing atmosphere. Now radar images from the Magellan spacecraft reveal with unprecedented clarity the planet's fractured plains, volcanoes, and crumpled landmasses. ADDITIONALIMAGE PROCESSINGBY DAVID P. ANDERSON,SOUTHERNMETHODISTUNIVERSITY above the alien landscape in an aircraft, we behold a vista 600 miles wide at the horizon (right). Below us lies a volcano, Sapas Mons. Hun dreds of miles away, beyond a vast lava plain, towers five-mile high Maat Mons, another of the planet's thousands of volcanoes. This remarkable perspective was created from radar data sent back by the Magellan spacecraft and processed using advanced computer technology. It is better than being there. Were our planet-hopping aircraft actually to brave Venus's atmosphere, piercing the thick clouds of sulfuric acid that blanket the planet, we'd be incinerated by temperatures similar to those in a self cleaning oven. It is infinitely unlikely any earthling will ever take one small step for man on the surface of Venus. In its first two years of operation, however, Magellan has given us a more detailed and complete image of Venus than we have of our own ocean floors. Magellan's international group of scientists was led by Ste phen Saunders of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasa dena, California, and Gordon Pettengill of MIT, head of radar studies. Along with others on the project team, they drew together billions of bits of data at JPL to bring Magellan's images to life. The data are not only unlocking secrets about Venus but also helping scientists understand more clearly the geologic forces that shaped our own planet. Pure science aside, Magellan images like this one kindle a sense of wonder that only the discovery of a new world can inspire. For a tantalizing moment, peering over a Venusian ridge, we are indeed explorers. In that instant we can feel a surge of awe not unlike what Spanish conquistadores must have experienced when they stumbled upon the Grand Canyon.