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How to Colonize Venus
September 1961 Popular Science

September 1961 Popular Science

September 1961 Popular Science Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Science, published 1872-2021. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

How to Colonize Venus - Carl Sagan, September 1961 Popular Science - Airplanes and RocketsRaise your hand if you watched the original 1980 Nova "Cosmos: A Personal Journey" TV series, hosted by überastronomer Carl Sagan. My hand is up. In fact, that might be what piqued my life-long interest in astronomy. I was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, stationed at Robins AFB, Georgia, as an Air Traffic Control Radar Repairman. The show motivated me to buy my first "real" telescope, a Criterion RV-6 Dynascope, a Newtonian model on an equatorial mount. I was surprised to run across this 1961 Popular Science magazine article entitled, "How to Colonize Venus." This might have been Sagan's initial foray into the public domain. Hard as it is to believe, at the time astronomers did not know that Venus' atmosphere, composed largely of carbon dioxide (CO2), supports clouds of sulphuric acid (battery acid) raining down, and the planet's surface has a temperature of more than 800° F and a pressure of more than 1300 psi. Sagan posited that the plant's surface was likely arid, dusty plains driven by strong winds, and than any manned mission must be prepared for such hostilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. sent unmanned probes to Venus, whereupon the true nature of the planet's atmosphere was discovered. Only the Russian Venera series actually landed on the surface. The couple craft which managed to reach the surface lasted only minutes. It's a good bet there won't be any manned missions to the surface of Venus anytime soon.

How to Colonize Venus

How to Colonize Venus, September 1961 Popular Science - Airplanes and RocketsBy Carl Sagan

The planet closest to Earth is Venus (it swings in to 25,000,000 miles). It is also one of the most mysterious. That's because you can't see the planet, only the pale, lemon-yellow clouds that cover it all the time. The mystery may be cleared up fairly soon: The Russians have sent a fly-by rocket probing past Venus (not very close, though), and we're planning to launch a Venus probe of our own next year.

Meanwhile, Carl Sagan, researcher at the University of California, has compared bits and pieces of astronomical evidence to deduce the nature of our old Evening Star (most inhospitable, he says), and to propose a weird scheme for making it comfortable for human space settlers ("microbiological planetary engineering," he calls it).

Since no one can see the surface of Venus, scientists have felt free to let their imaginations run, and they sure did. There are four theories, all seriously proposed by recognized experts, and all wildly different:

1. It's dripping wet, covered with swamps. (The clouds were assumed to be water vapor, like our clouds.)

2. It's sunk in a global ocean of Seltzer water. (Much carbon dioxide was detected; this would carbonate the ocean.)

3. It's covered by a huge pool of oil. (If there were originally a lot of hydrogen-carbon compounds, they would react with water to make all that carbon dioxide - and leave the planet coated with leftover hydrocarbons.)

4. It's an arid, windswept desert blanketed by dust clouds. (Until recently, not a trace of water could be detected.)

Venus Photographed in Blue Light at Mt. Wilson

Commented Sagan in his report in the journal Science, "Those planning manned expeditions to Venus must be exceedingly perplexed over whether to send along a paleobotanist, a mineralogist, a petroleum geologist, or a deep-sea diver."

New evidence, Sagan thinks, blasts all these theories except No.4, and this is not entirely right. The principal" clue is temperature. Venus is apparently heated by a powerful greenhouse effect - incoming sun heat is trapped by the heavy carbon dioxide atmosphere and the cloud layer. The surface runs around 600 degrees F., more than enough to dry out a swamp, evaporate a Seltzer ocean, or destroy an oil slick.

There can't be any liquid water. The clouds are ice crystals, but they are 30 miles up, where it's cold. It never rains. The surface is a dead, dry wasteland, eroded by the wind. The winds should be mild breezes, since the sun's heat goes mainly into warming up the heavy atmosphere, instead of moving the atmosphere around the way it does on earth.

No living thing we know about could exist under such conditions. Some life might carryon in the cool upper atmosphere, just under the clouds. There's not much chance that it does now, because it is unlikely that life ever got started on Venus - life brews slowly in a warm thin soup, and that Venus never seems to have had.

This dismal geography does not discourage Sagan. To make Venus resemble home sweet home, all you have to do is lower the temperature and set some oxygen free in the atmosphere. That's all. Sagan thinks blue-green algae will turn the trick. (It looks as if well-trained algae are as essential to space explorers as the compass was to Columbus.) Here's how:

The algae-microscopic plants that will float in the air- are squirted into Venus' clouds. There, using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water from the clouds' ice crystals, and sunlight, they manufacture carbohydrate and release free oxygen.

This uses up some water, which is scarce on Venus. You have to get it back. Very conveniently, the carbohydrate-fattened algae float down to lower, hotter regions of the atmosphere. The heat there roasts the carbohydrate, releasing carbon and water.

These two reactions build up the oxygen supply at the expense of carbon dioxide. As the carbon dioxide goes, the greenhouse effect becomes less efficient and the temperature drops. As the temperature drops, carbohydrate roasts more slowly, releasing less water. The loss of water vapor cuts the greenhouse effect and the temperature still more.

When the surface cools - below the boiling point of water, you have it made. Pools of liquid water form. Then it rains. The rain brings on the "Urey equilibrium" - back-and-forth reactions between carbon dioxide and common types of rocks that stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. (These reactions won't go without rain, which triggers the chemical processes and stirs things up.) After a while, the Urey equilibrium will establish a carbon dioxide level much like that on Earth, the greenhouse effect will slack off more, and Venus will begin to feel like Florida.



Posted June 22, 2024

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