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  • Writer's pictureMike Meynell

Understanding why Earth’s closest neighbour, Venus, is so different, by Dr Philippa Mason

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

The Flamsteed Astronomy Society had the pleasure of hosting a presentation by Dr. Philippa Mason, a member of the ESA Science Study Team and the NASA VenSAR Science Team, for the final lecture in our 2022/23 season. Focused on the intriguing differences between Earth and our closest planetary neighbor, Venus, Philippa's talk offered deep insights into the complexities of planetary science.

Prior to Philippa's presentation, our Chair, Bobby Manoo, shared his "Sky this Month" talk. He provided a detailed overview of the upcoming celestial events, effectively setting the stage for the main event.

Bobby presents what to see in the Sky this Month for June 2023

Philippa began by examining why Venus, which is similar to Earth in size and mass and presents a seemingly benign environment at the cloud tops, is not hospitable to life.

She presented a historical overview of Venus exploration, highlighting past missions like Mariner 2, which was the first to fly by another planet in 1962, and the Venera series that gave humanity its first glimpse of another planet's surface. These missions demonstrated the dichotomy of Venus, presenting it as an Earth-like world due to its atmospheric conditions at certain altitudes and an alien world due to its surface temperature and pressure, which far exceed what we see on Earth.

Dr Philippa Mason at the start of her talk

Philippa then moved on to discuss the current understanding of Venus, describing it as a complex world lacking liquid water and plate tectonics. She explained the diverse and intricate appearance of Venus's surface, including its large volcanoes and smaller, less obvious volcanic formations, emphasizing how these geological features continue to evolve over time.

She posited key questions about Venus, such as why and how it became so different from Earth and what maintains its dense atmosphere. Drawing upon the known data about the planet, she constructed a possible picture of Venus's past and present and offered predictions about its future, adding depth to the current understanding of the planet. The question of why Venus lacks liquid water, despite being similar to Earth, and how it might have lost any water it had were key discussion points.

One of the most intriguing parts of Philippa's talk was her presentation of future Venus exploration missions. She elaborated on the goals and objectives of NASA's VERITAS and DAVINCI missions and the joint ESA/NASA EnVision mission. Each mission is designed to explore specific aspects of the planet, such as surface composition, geological activity, atmospheric properties, and more.

Explaining the differences between Earth and Venus

Philippa concluded her talk by emphasizing the importance of studying Venus to gain a better understanding of Earth-like worlds. Venus's similarity to Earth in many respects, yet its radically different environmental conditions, make it an important subject for understanding the potential diversity of conditions on other Earth-like exoplanets.

Her presentation was not just an exploration of Venus as a planet, but a study in the wider principles that govern planetary science. As a member of the ESA Science Study Team and the NASA VenSAR Science Team, her insights provided a valuable glimpse into the frontlines of space exploration and research, and offered a promising preview of the exciting discoveries that future missions might unveil.

We express our sincere thanks to Dr. Philippa Mason for her insightful talk and to all those who contributed to the successful execution of our 2022/23 lecture series at the Flamsteed Astronomy Society.

Pictures from the evening (by Mike Meynell):

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