New image of Venus captured by Parker Solar Probe

The mission, which launched in 2018, aims to study the sun and reveal some of its mysteries. Over the course of seven years, the probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere and get closer to the surface of our star than any previous spacecraft.

Venus is critical to the success of the probe. The spacecraft uses the gravity of Venus as it rotates around the planet, called gravity assist, to help bend the probe’s orbit and bring it closer and closer to the sun.

During one of these flybys of Venus on July 11, 2020, the probe took an astonishing image that shows an unexpected side of our planetary neighbor. This was the third Venus gravity assist for the Parker solar probe.

The spacecraft’s WISPR instrument, or the wide-field imager for Parker Solar Probe, was actively imaging during the flyby and captured the night side, or the side opposite the sun, of Venus. The image was taken 7,693 miles from the planet.

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A faintly bright rim can be seen around the planet, which scientists believe is “night glow” or “the light emitted by oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere that recombine into molecules on the night side,” according to NASA. .

The bright streaks seen in the image are the result of space dust and cosmic rays, or charged particles, reflecting sunlight. The stripes look a little different depending on how fast the probe is traveling.

Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instrument captured this view of Venus in July 2020.

There is also a noticeably dark feature in the center of the image. It is known as Aphrodite Terra, which is the largest mountainous region on Venus. The reason it looks so dark in the image is because it is actually at a temperature that is 85 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the surrounding areas.

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The WISPR instrument was designed for the probe so that it can collect images of the solar corona, or outer atmosphere, in visible light. The imager can also capture the solar wind in action. The solar wind is a constant stream of energized particles that flow from the sun.

When he turned to look at Venus, WISPR surprised the scientists on the team. Instead of seeing clouds, the surface of Venus was revealed. Venus has an incredibly thick atmosphere that has proven difficult to see with instruments on other spacecraft in the past.

“WISPR effectively captured thermal emission from the surface of Venus,” Brian Wood, an astrophysicist and a member of the WISPR team at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, said in a statement.

Akatsuki is a Japanese orbiter that has been circling Venus since 2015. It allows scientists to study weather patterns on Venus, look for lightning within the planet’s thick clouds, and look for signs of active volcanoes.
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What WISPR was able to do in visible light is similar to what Akatsuki captured from Venus in the near infrared, Wood said.

Angelos Vourlidas, the WISPR project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, coordinated an imaging campaign with the Akatsuki mission.

One of two things is happening. Either WISPR is really sensitive to infrared light and detects it as it passes Venus, which could open up possibilities to study the dust around the sun, or the imager is looking through Venus’s atmosphere and directly towards the surface.

“Either way, some exciting science opportunities await us,” Vourlidas said in a NASA statement.
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Parker Solar Probe just made its fourth flyby of Venus on February 20, passing 1,482 miles from the planet’s surface, so the team planned another set of observations of the nightside of Venus. That information should be received by the end of April, according to NASA.

This flyby put Parker Solar Probe on course for its eighth and ninth steps close to the sun, which will take place on April 29 and August 9.

Each step of the sun leads the probe to break its own previous record, approaching more than a million miles closer than the previous step. These passes will bring the probe within 10.5 million kilometers of the sun’s surface.

“We are eager to see these new images,” said Javier Peralta, an astrophysicist on the Akatsuki team. Peralta was the first to suggest a Parker Solar Probe collaboration with the Japanese mission.

“If WISPR can sense the thermal emission from the surface of Venus and the nighttime glow, most likely from oxygen, at the extremity of the planet, it can make valuable contributions to studies of the surface of Venus.”


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