Venus was once thought to be a lush, life-bearing planet, but modern research has revealed an utterly lethal world. What perils await explorers of “Earth’s evil twin”?

Image of the surface of Venus

Deathworld! An artist’s impression of the desolate surface of Venus (Image credit: ESA)

 

Is there anyone who hasn’t admired the lovely beacon of Venus hanging bright in a cerulean sky? (So bright in fact, it is regularly reported as a UFO, or even more ludicrously, a mystery planet denied by orthodox astronomers).

I’ve written about Venus elsewhere, but let’s talk about the conditions there. Under the gleaming sulphurous clouds, the planet has a surprisingly flat landscape with occasional ranges of gently rolling hills. There are two major highlands, almost continents, but 80% of Venus is covered in these level lava plains. The dense soupy atmosphere (96% carbon dioxide, 4% nitrogen) gives the landscape an oppressive and murky look. This extreme atmosphere makes Venus deadly. The atmosphere exerts 90 times as much force per square centimetre as Earth’s atmosphere does on us (when did you last notice the weight of a hundred kilometres of air on your body?) meanwhile this atmosphere has trapped millennia’s worth of solar heat. Venus is hot. At 450 degrees Celsius, it is not quite a blast furnace but it’s nearly there.

Let’s have a thought experiment. I’ve landed a spaceship on Venus, and impatiently stepped out of the airlock on the cracked basalt. What happens to me?

In three words, splat, sizzle, choke. Instantly I’m crushed by a force equivalent to roughly 80 tonnes while being simultaneously cremated. My last (very quick) breath is of toxic gas. Life on Venus would be nasty, brutal and short.

Although it is hard to imagine technology that could enable people to survive on Venus that has not stopped a few science fiction tales from describing humans visiting or settling on the surface of Venus; the TV series Space Odyssey (2004) and Defying Gravity (2009) had near future astronauts in armoured spacesuits making brief EVAs on the planet. Both programmes featured beautiful special effects which evoked the heat and the danger, but neither offered any real clues on how to endure this relentlessly hostile environment. John Varley wrote an interesting Venusian story, In the Bowl (found in his 1977 book Persistence of Vision ), but his characters could use magical forcefields to survive there. Most recent SF stories with a Venusian setting assume the planet will one day be terraformed.

But just say a human could survive there as it is now. What would he see? We have panoramic views of Venus from ground level returned by the amazing Venera probes, so we have a good idea of what to expect. We would see a spectacular and desolate landscape of cracked and broken rocks, appearing a dirty orange colour under what sunlight trickles through the clouds. It used to be said that the thick atmosphere would so refract the light that the landscape would appear distorted, curving up around the viewer (hence the title of John Varley’s story), but recent books do not discuss this idea, so it may have been discredited.

Our sister planet’s deserts offer magnificent, scary desolation but are probably forever out of reach to humanity. Venus is a world best left to robots.

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)

Admin note: In regards to the atmospheric pressure on Venus. At sea level on Earth, the air presses down on our bodies at 14.5 pounds per square inch, or 1 bar; the surface pressure on Venus is 92 bar. To experience that pressure on Earth, you’d have to travel more than 3,000 feet (914 m) down into the ocean. Say someone could dive to the bottom of the ocean (not recommending this!) then the lungs would collapse completely, killing them instantly. So being on Venus would be similar to a human being in a “bottom of the ocean” scenario.


27 Comments

Everyday Science · July 19, 2019 at 06:10

According to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Two billion years ago, the second planet of our Solar System Venus may have a cool atmosphere, had oceans of water and possibly life.
But how Venus went from a habitable planet to a hell?

Jed Dornoff · July 10, 2018 at 07:33

Thanks you. I am playing a silly but fun terraforming game (TerraGenesis, I think). And I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be one of the first colonists trying to live on the planet in a hab unit of some sort of course. All just fun imagination stuff but I LOVED your article. It helped feed my imagination more. You’d have to alleviate the planet of its immense atmospheric pressure and high heats before you could ever even imagine such a venture. But none the less fun to think about. :).

aiden · March 9, 2018 at 15:38

i can´t believe that you will die in 10 seconds!!!!!!!!!!!

    Happy embroidery · November 22, 2018 at 15:35

    Omg me neither fam!!!?

    Zach · December 15, 2018 at 21:18

    Yeah average temperatures on venus are over 800 degrees so you would kinda just melt lol

Ken F · January 25, 2018 at 01:15

Well, you would certainly die pretty quickly on the surface of Venus but I’m not quite sure why you think our bodies would be crushed flat. After all there are fish on earth that survive at pressures ten times higher than that of the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus. Let’s face it, our bodies are made mostly of water, and water does not compress when forces are applied equally and uniformly on all sides, such as is the case with atmospheric pressure. So, no, your body would not be “crushed flat” by the pressure.

I have to say though, if it were indeed possible to survive on Venus it would be a lot of fun being able to jump off of a 1000 foot high cliff without a parachute and still be able to land safely. After all, terminal velocity would have to be extremely slow. Of course the downside would be that you would probably have to run your car full throttle just to maintain a top speed of 5 or 10 mph (I’m too tired to actually do the math on that).

    admin · January 29, 2018 at 13:18

    Hi Ken,

    Thank you for you comment. This article was written by a previous admin and is one of our older posts. You are comparing us to the fish that live at the bottom of the sea that have specially adapted to living under those conditions. We humans are not adapted to this kind of pressure and so our bodies would not be able to cope if we went to the bottom of the ocean without any form of protection. Say if someone could dive to that level, at a deep enough point, the lungs would collapse completely, killing you instantly. This is the most extreme consequence of underwater pressure.

    The atmospheric pressure around us at seas level is roughly 15 psi, or 1 bar. On Venus the atmospheric pressure is 92 bar. So you are right in that we wouldn’t be “crushed flat” but certainly it would be similar to being in a “bottom of the ocean” scenario.

    I will amend the article to reflect such 🙂 Many thanks.

Rashi Sharma · August 25, 2017 at 10:58

Very , very nice and cool

Buctuc · June 9, 2017 at 16:00

Great article!! Loved it!

ayush · February 1, 2017 at 04:26

GREAT TO KNOW ABOUT PLANET VENUS.

ayush · February 1, 2017 at 04:23

Absoulute great infiormation. Hope to get the information about jupiter and kuiper belt.

    admin · February 1, 2017 at 09:10

    Hi ayush, thank you for commenting. We have a few articles on Jupiter and the Kuiper Belt. Is there anything in particular you’d like to see and we can try for a future article?

Sara Tee · December 11, 2016 at 21:59

Didn’t Venus melt the Russian lander, how could it take a photo there?

    admin · December 12, 2016 at 16:35

    Dear Sara, thank you for your question. I wouldn’t say Venus melted any Russian landers but Venera 4 was thought to have been crushed by the pressure (this is now disputed). The Venera probes which took pictures from the surface were designed to survive there for several hours based on our knowledge of the planet. There is an excellent article about the Russian missions to Venus at this link, which I urge you read.

Tyn · April 10, 2016 at 18:42

Looking for a new home to live than with the crazy people here on earth. Lol

    William A. Wright · October 17, 2016 at 19:25

    Balloons in the upper atmosphere, with equipment to electrolytically break the oxygen out of the carbon dioxide atmosphere…I want to get as far away from Trump and Hillary as possible.

    caylee · April 13, 2018 at 17:44

    i would not live there

Hoejoe sulaimon · March 1, 2016 at 20:36

Just this image wil kill you … Before dreaming to step on the planet [venus]

routh annali · December 19, 2014 at 13:47

this page is really awesome especially for the people who loves Science 🙂

    Rob · April 26, 2016 at 22:36

    There is lots of wind on venus

Nathaniel · July 29, 2014 at 01:49

Murky looking,i can imagine that if was there the atmosphere there would be hot and barely any wind.probably only 3 to 5 miles small enough push me feet dragging due to extreme 91 times pressure than earth,plus the face and body be crush me and an extreme heat and its surface be near red hot of basalt of lava,

Cate B. · September 12, 2013 at 02:34

I googled “on venus, what would kill you first?” and this page was the number one result. Thanks for the information!

    Franklin · October 21, 2015 at 21:31

    just the heat alone will leave you sizzling and baking.

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