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Module 11: Venus - the Sulphurous Greenhouse. Activity 2: Observing the Surface of Venus. Summary:. In this Activity, we will investigate (a) exploring Venus by radar, (b) landing on Venus, and (c) the surface of Venus - cratering, volcanism, tectonic activity.

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Module 11: Venus - the Sulphurous Greenhouse

Activity 2: Observing the Surface of Venus



  • In this Activity, we will investigate
  • (a) exploring Venus by radar,
  • (b) landing on Venus, and
  • (c) the surface of Venus - cratering, volcanism, tectonic activity
a exploring venus by radar

(a) Exploring Venus by Radar

However radio waves travel through clouds, and so we can use the techniques of radar astronomy to send radar signals to Venus (either from Earth, or from an orbiting radar transmitting space probe) and analyse them on their return.

Without radar astronomy, we would not even know how fast the surface of Venus rotates.

Venus’ thick covering of clouds rules out the use of optical astronomy.


The Arecibo 305 Metre Radio Telescope, formed out of a natural limestone sinkhole in Puerto Rico, can be used as a powerful radar transceiver* for planetary studies.

* transmits & receives radar signals


Radar astronomy is used to measure accurately the distance to Solar System objects by using the “round-trip time” for the signal (to accuracy of 1 microsecond)- and is also important for navigation on space missions.

Using Doppler shift techniques, radar astronomy hasbeen used to determine the rotation rates of Mercury and Venus.

Radar astronomy can also be used to map surface features of Solar System targets.


Radar imaging can directly resolve surface features on the Moon:

(not to scale!)

But Venus is much further away, and so only low resolutionmaps of Venus are achieved by radar imaging from Earth.

Relatively high resolution radar mapping of the surfaceof Venus came about once radar-equipped space probes could be placed in orbit around Venus.

the first orbital radar mapping of venus was carried out by pioneer 12 the pioneer venus orbiter

Pioneer 12 entered orbit around Venus in 1978, and made radar maps of 93% of the planet’s surface. Designedto carry out an 8 month mission, it in fact stayed in operationuntil October 1992!

The first orbital radar mapping of Venus was carried out by Pioneer 12, the Pioneer Venus Orbiter.


Radar mapping was also carried out by the USSR Venera 15 & 16 probes, launched in 1983, and thenthe US Magellan spacecraft, between 1990 and 1994, mapped the surface of Venus to a resolution of 100m.

Magellan was the first space probe to be launched by the Shuttle program.



This 3-kilometer resolution radar map is a composite of Magellan images compiled between 1990 and 1994. Gaps were filled in by the Earth-based Arecibo Radio Telescope.


Ishtar Terra highlands featuring Maxwell Montes, the largest mountain on Venus

In this false-colour map, red represents mountains, while blue represents valleys.


On a radar map, brightregions correspond to terrain which is highly reflective to radar roughterrain,

and dark regions correspond to terrain which does not reflectradar well  smooth terrain.

so radar maps of venus can look rather strange but then so can radar maps of earth

This image of Mt. Rainier, Washington USA, planet Earth, was produced by the Spaceborne Radar Laboratory which flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994.

So radar maps of Venus can look rather strange, but then, so can radar maps of Earth:

As with all fields of astronomical imaging, it takes training and practice to interpret such images correctly.

b landing on venus

(b) Landing on Venus

The first spacecraft to land on Venus* was Soviet Venera 7, which arrived at the surface on 15 December 1970 and transmitted data for 23 minutes. This was followed by Venera 8, which landed on 22 July 1972. Neither of these spacecrafts, however, had cameras so no images were returned.

Crafts that land on Venus have to contend with the extreme temperature (hot enough to melt lead and zinc) and crushing pressure at its surface.

* One could argue that Venera 3 was the first spacecraft to reach Venus – impacting the surface (rather than landing) on 1 March 1966. The communications systems failed however and no data was transmitted.


The first spacecraft to return images from Venus was Venera 9, which arrived at the surface on 22 October 1975 and operated for 53 minutes. It transmitted a single image:

Three days later, Verena 10 arrived and also managed to transmit an image in the 65 minutes it remained operational.


Lens cap!

Images were returned from a total of four of the Soviet Venera spacecrafts (Venera 9, 10, 13 & 14) which landed on Venus between the 1970s and early 1980s, and managed between them to conduct experiments, collect data and take pictures for typically an hour before being put out of commission by the extreme conditions.

They carried out radioactive testing on rocks at their landingsites, finding what appeared to be basaltic at some locationsand granitic at others - both types of rock which are originally formed from lava.

Venera 13 survived for 2h7mins and took 14 images on 1 March 1982


(c) The Surface of Venus

The surface of Venusis fairly flat:

20% lowland plains,

70% rolling uplands,


10% highlands.



With the exception of the three highland regions, elevationdifferences are only 2 to 3km.

Even the highland–lowland elevation differences are only about 12km, compared to 20km on Earth and 25km on Mars.

* Mt. Everest reaches slightly under 9km above sea level, and the Marianas trench descends 11km below sea level.


the northern hemisphere is relatively mountainous,with uncratered upland plateaus

the southern hemisphere is mainly rolling, cratered, lava plains

Which parts of the surface of Venus would you expect to be the oldest- the plateaus in the north, or the lava plains in the south?
the presence of cratering on the southern lowland plains gives us a clue

We expect significant cratering to indicate relatively old surfaces, perhaps dating from the era of intense bombardment in the early Solar System.

The plateaus in the north are relatively uncratered, indicating that the surface has been reworked there, by volcanic flows or tectonic activity, in more recent times.

The presence of cratering on the southern lowland plains gives us a clue.


So we conclude that the cratered southern lowlands represent a more ancient venusian surface than do the highlands.

This is opposite to the situation here on Earth: here the lowlands, which are our ocean basins, are the newest part of the terrestrial surface.


Venus is a rocky world, illuminated by orange sunlight:

- picture sent back by Venera 13, which landedon Venus in 1982. Part of the Venera lander is visible here


Cratering on Venus

More cratering is evident on Venus than on Earth, butas we have noted before, other influences including plate tectonics and biological effects have probably acted to wipe out or obscure much of the terrestrial cratering record.

Planetary scientists study cratering on Venus to learnmore about the planet, but also to learn more aboutcratering on Earth. Both planets have similaraccelerations due to gravity, and both have substantialatmospheres.


3 large meteorite impact craters, diameters of 35 to 65 km, aresurrounded by bright (rough)ejecta, and appear to be partially filled with dark (smooth) material,probably lava risen to the surface through fractures produced by the impacts.

This Magellan radar image of Lavinia Planitia is again false-coloured to emphasize differences in elevation, with red indicating high- and blue indicating low-lying ground.


Ejecta from the original impact litter the surrounds of the craters, and come out as light, bright areas in a radar map because they are rough terrain. They are coded in the red-orange-yellow range, because they occur high up on the sides of the craters.

Lava flows are predominantlysmooth, so they appear darkin a radar map. They are codedblue, because they occurdeep down on the crater floor.


The latter is probably due to the very dense atmosphere of Venus.

Think about why this might not favour very small craters, then click here to see if you agree with our explanation.

Compared to the Moon and Mercury, Venus has a much smaller number of craters, and in particular lacks very small craters.


Volcanism on Venus

From what we know about the surface of Venus, it is largely dominated by volcanism.

Thousands of volcanoes dot the surface, which is also marked by lava flows of up to thousands of kilometers in length

- responsiblefor wiping out much of the cratering record onVenus.


Maat Mons, an 8-kilometer volcano, is shown in this three-dimensional perspective reconstruction of the surface of Venus, as seen from a viewpoint 560 kilometers north of Maat Mons at an elevation of 1.7 kilometers. Lava flows extend for hundreds of kilometers across the fractured plains shown in the foreground, to the base of Maat Mons.

In order for us tomore clearly seedetail, NASA 3Dreconstructions are usually exaggeratedby a factor of 22.5 inheight!

but here is the same volcano without the factor of 22 5 exaggeration in height
… but here is the same volcano, without the factor of 22.5 exaggeration in height!

As you can see, exaggerating the vertical scale helps ussee detail, especially as the terrain all appears to havesimilar colouring.

However it can give us a false sense of how steepthe terrain really is.


Volcanoes on Venus are shield volcanoes, which formfrom particularly fluid lava and have extremely shallow slopes.

Shield volcanoes are common on Earth too - the largestterrestrial volcano, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, is also a shield volcano.


Below is a radar image of one fairly common type of venusian volcanic feature which showed up in the Magellan images.

Known as a “venusian tick”, it represents a volcano about 32 kilometers wide at the summit with ridges and valleys radiating down its sides lending it an insect like appearance.


Other volcanoes on Venus form as pancake-shaped domes up to 25 km across and 2 km high, presumably as the product of very thick sticky lava.

These volcanoes have no counterpart on Earth.


How Venus manages to produce both lava which is free-flowing enough to extend thousands of kilometres, plus lava viscous enough to form the pancake-shaped domes that we have just seen, is an unresolved issue!


Sometimes the lava has not erupted through the surface atall, but instead has formed large circular or oval bulges hundreds of kilometers across, called coronae.


The limited radar images we have of Venus cannot confirm whether any volcanic activity continues.

However there is some indirect evidence - for example, of lightning strikes possibly concentrated over volcanicregions, and fluctuations in the level of sulphur dioxidein the atmosphere - which suggest that volcanic activity is still happening on Venus.

Perhaps future missions to Venus will manage to resolvethe issue by imaging a venusian volcano in the act of erupting!


Tectonic Activity on Venus

While no large-scale plate tectonics of the scale of thaton Earth appears to be happening on Venus, the lavaflows indicate convective flows in its mantle, as on Earth.

Limited tectonic activity of a sort does seem to occur,creating patterns of ridges and rift valleys in the lowlands,and much of the highland mountain regions appear to have been produced by compression of the crust.

One theory suggests that periodically sections of the hot flexible crust (kept that way by the thick atmosphere) may sink into the mantle and new crust may be formed from lava flows and volcanism - a periodic resurfacing of large sections of the planet.


Gula Mons

Sif Mons

700 km long rift valley

(Computer reconstruction, with vertical scale again exaggerated)


We’ll delay modelling the evolution of Venus so thatwe can compare it directly to that of Mars in a laterActivity.

In the meantime, when you have finished this Activity, use the CD-ROM which accompanies the Universe textbook to view simulated fly-pasts of venusian volcanoes, rift valleys and craters - in the Animations & Videos section.

In the same section there is also a video showing views of the Arecibo telescope.


Image Credits

  • Arecibo
  • Venera 13 surface view of Venus
  • NASA: Pioneer 12
  • NASA: Venus globe
  • NASA: Earth globe
  • NASA: Just passing by
  • NASA: Impact Craters
  • Mauna Loa, Hawaii,US Geological Survey,J.D. Griggs

Image Credits

  • NASA: Ovda Regio
  • Topographic Map of Venus from Pioneer Venus (Mercator Projection)
  • Beneath Venus' Clouds
  • Complex Craters, Venus
  • Computer-generated surface view of Maat Mons
  • Computer generated surface view of Gula Mons.
  • Gula Mons (to realistic scale)

Image Credits

  • A Venusian Tick,
  • Computer generated surface view of Alpha Regio
  • Computer generated surface view of a corona, tentatively named Idem-Kuva.
Now return to the Module 11 home page, and read more about the surface of the Venus in the Textbook Readings.

Hit the Esc key (escape) to return to the Module 11 Home Page


Atmospheres and Craters

As we will see when we investigate meteorites on Earth in a later Activity, Solar System debris striking a planetary atmosphere largely “burns up” before ithits the surface.

As the atmosphere of Venus is very dense comparedto that of the Moon and Mercury or even Earth, the thick atmosphere probably tends to destroy small debris before it can reach the surface, leading to a lack of very small craters.

Also, even somewhat larger projectiles probably tend to break up into smaller fragments when they hit the venusian atmosphere, and those fragments in turn are likely to burn up.