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Parker Solar Probe, Akatsuki, and Earthly astronomers deliver rare top-to-surface view of Venus

By Jeff Spry

Mars has certainly been on everyone's mind lately, with the prospect of a Red Planet mission in the near future, but our other solar system buddy, Venus, has suddenly been thrust into the public's mind after phosphine organic compounds were discovered in the barren world's cloudtops.

Providing unprecedented top-to-surface images of Venus, a combined effort of NASA's Parker Solar Probe, Japan's Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter, and amateur Earthbound astronomers is offering a sensational glimpse of Earth’s opposite neighbor at this week's Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2020, occurring as a virtual event happening from Sept. 21 to Oct. 9.

On July 11, the intrepid Parker Solar Probe zoomed past Venus for a third flyby, while carrying out its mission to acquire solar particles from our star's outer atmosphere. Joined with data collected by the Akatsuki science team from June 19 to July 18, and amateur astronomers worldwide, a series of coordinated Venusian views were compiled that revealed more of the planet's hostile properties and delivered a better understanding of its evolution. 

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“The campaign has resulted in multiple, multi-level observations right from the surface to the cloud-tops and airglow phenomena, which have given us unique insights into Venus’ atmosphere,” explained Ricardo Hueso, former member of ESA’s Venus Express mission and director of the amateur additions. “The opportunity to observe Venus with so many instruments and with such a large collaboration means that we can enhance the scientific value of these short visits by the Parker Solar Probe and BepiColombo to Venus.”

During the multi-pronged campaign, the Parker Solar Probe witnessed the nightside of Venus, extending from the surface to its upper atmosphere, while Akatsuki's instruments obtained info centered on the upper clouds.

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Down on Earth, researchers employed Hawaii's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) at the Mauna Kea Observatory and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) in La Palma, Spain, to delve into the deeper clouds of Venus on the planet's night side. More observations of the deeper clouds and the surface of Venus' surface were gathered at Pic du Midi in France's Pyrenees Mountains.

These ambitious amateur astronomers, coordinated through the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure, peered into the upper and middle clouds in ultraviolet, violet, and near-infrared wavelengths and even observed the Venus surface through radiation escaping from the planet via its thick clouds.

“It was a really exciting opportunity to have researchers using the IRTF and NOT join forces with amateur astronomers to observe Venus at the same time as Parker and Akatsuki,” said Dr. Javier Peralta, who led the ground-based support using professional telescopes. “These observations have also given us the chance to monitor the evolution of a fast-moving, giant, longitudinal divide in the deeper clouds of Venus that has been previously observed between January and April 2020 by amateur astronomers.”   

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These coordinated observations intensified all summer long, when Venus was in the best position in comparison to the Earth, and will finish up this October, as the ESA's BepiColombo probe cruises past Venus on its voyage to Mercury.

“There are clear signs of changes over time in the clouds of Venus if we compare observations by the Venus Express mission in 2006-2014 with more recent observations by Akatsuki since 2015," Dr. Peralta added. "The data obtained by amateur and professional observers in these campaigns associated with flybys this summer and autumn will extend our knowledge of Venus weather and its variability.”