Venus Unveiled

For a full list of the complement of instruments on Venus Express you can take a look at the VEX Instrument Summary .For the most part, I’ll focus on data from VIRTIS and SPICAV-SOIR. VIRTIS is a spectral imager which observes patches of Venus in a set of wavelengths ranging from the ultraviolet (0.25 microns) to the near infrared (5 microns). On the night-side VIRTIS infrared yields thermal emission, which can provide information about cloud structure and temperature, as well as information about atmospheric constituents.. On the day-side VIRTIS infrared images are dominated by reflection of the near-infrared component of sunlight; the absorption of solar near-infrared also provides valuable information about atmospheric constituents, as well as information about cloud structure that is complementary to the night-side thermal emission. SPICAV/SOIR is a spectrometer with somewhat different characteristics; it returns high-resolution ultraviolet images , which reveal interesting aspects of atmospheric dynamics. The reflection of short wavelengths like ultraviolet gives a good indication of the occurrence of cloud particles, but the utility of ultraviolet observations is enhanced by the presence of an as-yet unidentified ultraviolet absorber in the atmosphere of Venus, which shows up in the form of dark streaks on ultraviolet images. Besides being useful as an ultraviolet imager, SPICAV/SOIR is used with a technique called occultation, in which the attenuation of starlight or sunlight passing through the atmosphere provides information about the vertical profile of various atmospheric constitutents, including sulfur dioxide, water vapor (and its various isotopes), carbon monoxide, carbonyl sulfide and oxygen. SPICAV is derived from spare parts from a similar instrument (SPICAM) that flew on Mars Express, but SOIR, which adds infrared channels useful for solar occultuation measurements, was newly developed for Venus Express.

Venus Express also carried a thermal infrared spectrometer, PFS, which was intended to study wavelengths longer than 5 microns. Thermal emission in these wavelengths is important to the understanding of the radiation budget of Venus. Unfortunately, this instrument was the one disappointment in an otherwise spectacularly successful mission, as the PFS was rendered inoperative by the failure of a critical shutter to open. But no worries — the instruments that did work provide a great wealth of new material to think about.

Venus Express sports a lightweight radio-science package, VeRa. Radio occultation is a low tech but highly valuable workhorse of planetary observation. By observing the refraction of radio waves passing through the atmosphere, one can obtain density profiles, since the index of refraction is proportional to density. From density and the hydrostatic relation (i.e. pressure is the weight of all the fluid above you) it is possible to reconstruct temperature profiles if you know what the atmosphere is made of. On Venus, radio occultation can observe the atmosphere down to about 45 km. altitude from the surface.

Venus: A dynamic atmosphere

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