Cosmos - Carl Sagan (1980)
Chapter 4. HEAVEN AND HELL
The doors of heaven and hell are adjacent and identical.
—Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. Even on the Earth, even in our own century, bizarre natural events have occurred.
In the early morning hours of June 30, 1908, in Central Siberia, a giant fireball was seen moving rapidly across the sky. Where it touched the horizon, an enormous explosion took place. It leveled some 2,000 square kilometers of forest and burned thousands of trees in a flash fire near the impact site. It produced an atmospheric shock wave that twice circled the Earth. For two days afterward, there was so much fine dust in the atmosphere that one could read a newspaper at night by scattered light in the streets of London, 10,000 kilometers away.
The government of Russia under the Czars could not be bothered to investigate so trivial an event, which, after all, had occurred far away, among the backward Tungus people of Siberia. It was ten years after the Revolution before an expedition arrived to examine the ground and interview the witnesses. These are some of the accounts they brought back:
Early in the morning when everyone was asleep in the tent, it was blown up into the air, together with the occupants. When they fell back to Earth, the whole family suffered slight bruises, but Akulina and Ivan actually lost consciousness. When they regained consciousness they heard a great deal of noise and saw the forest blazing round them and much of it devastated.
I was sitting in the porch of the house at the trading station of Vanovara at breakfast time and looking towards the north. I had just raised my axe to hoop a cask, when suddenly … the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared to be covered with fire. At that moment I felt a great heat as if my shirt had caught fire.… I wanted to pull off my shirt and throw it away, but at that moment there was a bang in the sky, and a mighty crash was heard. I was thrown on the ground about three sajenes away from the porch and for a moment I lost consciousness. My wife ran out and carried me into the hut. The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or guns firing. The Earth trembled, and when I lay on the ground I covered my head because I was afraid that stones might hit it. At that moment when the sky opened, a hot wind, as from a cannon, blew past the huts from the north. It left its mark on the ground.…
When I sat down to have my breakfast beside my plough, I heard sudden bangs, as if from gun-fire. My horse fell to its knees. From the north side above the forest a flame shot up.… Then I saw that the fir forest had been bent over by the wind and I thought of a hurricane. I seized hold of my plough with both hands, so that it would not be carried away. The wind was so strong that it carried off some of the soil from the surface of the ground, and then the hurricane drove a wall of water up the Angara. I saw it all quite clearly, because my land was on a hillside.
The roar frightened the horses to such an extent that some galloped off in panic, dragging the ploughs in different directions, and others collapsed.
The carpenters, after the first and second crashes, had crossed themselves in stupefaction, and when the third crash resounded they fell backwards from the building onto the chips of wood. Some of them were so stunned and utterly terrified that I had to calm them down and reassure them. We all abandoned work and went into the village. There, whole crowds of local inhabitants were gathered in the streets in terror, talking about this phenomenon.
I was in the fields … and had only just got one horse harnessed to the harrow and begun to attach another when suddenly I heard what sounded like a single loud shot to the right. I immediately turned round and saw an elongated flaming object flying through the sky. The front part was much broader than the tail end and its color was like fire in the day-time. It was many times bigger than the sun but much dimmer, so that it was possible to look at it with the naked eye. Behind the flames trailed what looked like dust. It was wreathed in little puffs, and blue streamers were left behind from the flames.… As soon as the flame had disappeared, bangs louder than shots from a gun were heard, the ground could be felt to tremble, and the window panes in the cabin were shattered.
… I was washing wool on the bank of the River Kan. Suddenly a noise like the fluttering of the wings of a frightened bird was heard … and a kind of swell came up the river. After this came a single sharp bang so loud that one of the workmen … fell into the water.
This remarkable occurrence is called the Tunguska Event. Some scientists have suggested that it was caused by a piece of hurtling antimatter, annihilated on contact with the ordinary matter of the Earth, disappearing in a flash of gamma rays. But the absence of radioactivity at the impact site gives no support to this explanation. Others postulate that a mini black hole passed through the Earth in Siberia and out the other side. But the records of atmospheric shock waves show no hint of an object booming out of the North Atlantic later that day. Perhaps it was a spaceship of some unimaginably advanced extraterrestrial civilization in desperate mechanical trouble, crashing in a remote region of an obscure planet. But at the site of the impact there is no trace of such a ship. Each of these ideas has been proposed, some of them more or less seriously. Not one of them is strongly supported by the evidence. The key point of the Tunguska Event is that there was a tremendous explosion, a great shock wave, an enormous forest fire, and yet there is no impact crater at the site. There seems to be only one explanation consistent with all the facts: In 1908 a piece of a comet hit the Earth.
In the vast spaces between the planets there are many objects, some rocky, some metallic, some icy, some composed partly of organic molecules. They range from grains of dust to irregular blocks the size of Nicaragua or Bhutan. And sometimes, by accident, there is a planet in the way. The Tunguska Event was probably caused by an icy cometary fragment about a hundred meters across—the size of a football field—weighing a million tons, moving at about 30 kilometers per second, 70,000 miles per hour.
If such an impact occurred today it might be mistaken, especially in the panic of the moment, for a nuclear explosion. The cometary impact and fireball would simulate all effects of a one-megaton nuclear burst, including the mushroom cloud, with two exceptions: there would be no gamma radiation or radioactive fallout. Could a rare but natural event, the impact of a sizable cometary fragment, trigger a nuclear war? A strange scenario: a small comet hits the Earth, as millions of them have, and the response of our civilization is promptly to self-destruct. It might be a good idea for us to understand comets and collisions and catastrophes a little better than we do. For example, an American Vela satellite detected an intense double flash of light from the vicinity of the South Atlantic and Western Indian Ocean on September 22, 1979. Early speculation held that it was a clandestine test of a low yield (two kilotons, about a sixth the energy of the Hiroshima bomb) nuclear weapon by South Africa or Israel. The political consequences were considered serious around the world. But what if the flashes were instead caused by the impact of a small asteroid or a piece of a comet? Since airborne overflights in the vicinity of the flashes showed not a trace of unusual radioactivity in the air, this is a real possibility and underscores the dangers in an age of nuclear weapons of not monitoring impacts from space better than we do.
A comet is made mostly of ice—water (H2O) ice, with a little methane (CH4) ice, and some ammonia (NH3) ice. Striking the Earth’s atmosphere, a modest cometary fragment would produce a great radiant fireball and a mighty blast wave, which would burn trees, level forests and be heard around the world. But it might not make much of a crater in the ground. The ices would all be melted during entry. There would be few recognizable pieces of the comet left—perhaps only a smattering of small grains from the non-icy parts of the cometary nucleus. Recently, the Soviet scientist E. Sobotovich has identified a large number of tiny diamonds strewn over the Tunguska site. Such diamonds are already known to exist in meteorites that have survived impact, and that may originate ultimately from comets.
On many a clear night, if you look patiently up at the sky, you will see a solitary meteor blazing briefly overhead. On some nights you can see a shower of meteors, always on the same few days of every year—a natural fireworks display, an entertainment in the heavens. These meteors are made by tiny grains, smaller than a mustard seed. They are less shooting stars than falling fluff. Momentarily brilliant as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they are heated and destroyed by friction at a height of about 100 kilometers. Meteors are the remnants of comets.* Old comets, heated by repeated passages near the Sun, break up, evaporate and disintegrate. The debris spreads to fill the full cometary orbit. Where that orbit intersects the orbit of the Earth, there is a swarm of meteors waiting for us. Some part of the swarm is always at the same position in the Earth’s orbit, so the meteor shower is always observed on the same day of every year. June 30, 1908 was the day of the Beta Taurid meteor shower, connected with the orbit of Comet Encke. The Tunguska Event seems to have been caused by a chunk of Comet Encke, a piece substantially larger than the tiny fragments that cause those glittering, harmless meteor showers.
Comets have always evoked fear and awe and superstition. Their occasional apparitions disturbingly challenged the notion of an unalterable and divinely ordered Cosmos. It seemed inconceivable that a spectacular streak of milk-white flame, rising and setting with the stars night after night, was not there for a reason, did not hold some portent for human affairs. So the idea arose that comets were harbingers of disaster, auguries of divine wrath—that they foretold the deaths of princes, the fall of kingdoms. The Babylonians thought that comets were celestial beards. The Greeks thought of flowing hair, the Arabs of flaming swords. In Ptolemy’s time comets were elaborately classified as “beams,” “trumpets,” “jars” and so on, according to their shapes. Ptolemy thought that comets bring wars, hot weather and “disturbed conditions.” Some medieval depictions of comets resemble unidentified flying crucifixes. A Lutheran “Superintendent” or Bishop of Magdeburg named Andreas Celichius published in 1578 a “Theological Reminder of the New Comet,” which offered the inspired view that a comet is “the thick smoke of human sins, rising every day, every hour, every moment, full of stench and horror before the face of God, and becoming gradually so thick as to form a comet, with curled and plaited tresses, which at last is kindled by the hot and fiery anger of the Supreme Heavenly Judge.” But others countered that if comets were the smoke of sin, the skies would be continually ablaze with them.
The most ancient record of an apparition of Halley’s (or any other) Comet appears in the Chinese Book of Prince Huai Nan, attendant to the march of King Wu against Zhou of Yin. The year was 1057 B.C. The approach to Earth of Halley’s Comet in the year 66 is the probable explanation of the account by Josephus of a sword that hung over Jerusalem for a whole year. In 1066 the Normans witnessed another return of Halley’s Comet. Since it must, they thought, presage the fall of some kingdom, the comet encouraged, in some sense precipitated, the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. The comet was duly noted in a newspaper of the time, the Bayeux Tapestry. In 1301, Giotto, one of the founders of modern realistic painting, witnessed another apparition of Comet Halley and inserted it into a nativity scene. The Great Comet of 1466—yet another return of Halley’s Comet—panicked Christian Europe; the Christians feared that God, who sends comets, might be on the side of the Turks, who had just captured Constantinople.
The leading astronomers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were fascinated by comets, and even Newton became a little giddy over them. Kepler described comets as darting though space “as the fishes in the sea,” but being dissipated by sunlight, as the cometary tail always points away from the sun. David Hume, in many cases an uncompromising rationalist, at least toyed with the notion that comets were the reproductive cells—the eggs or sperm—of planetary systems, that planets are produced by a kind of interstellar sex. As an undergraduate, before his invention of the reflecting telescope, Newton spent many consecutive sleepless nights searching the sky for comets with his naked eye, pursuing them with such fervor that he felt ill from exhaustion. Following Tycho and Kepler, Newton concluded that the comets seen from Earth do not move within our atmosphere, as Aristotle and others had thought, but rather are more distant than the Moon, although closer than Saturn. Comets shine, as the planets do, by reflected sunlight, “and they are much mistaken who remove them almost as far as the fixed stars; for if it were so, the comets could receive no more light from our Sun than our planets do from the fixed stars.” He showed that comets, like planets, move in ellipses: “Comets are a sort of planets revolved in very eccentric orbits about the Sun.” This demystification, this prediction of regular cometary orbits, led his friend Edmund Halley in 1707 to calculate that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were apparitions at 76-year intervals of the same comet, and predicted its return in 1758. The comet duly arrived and was named for him posthumously. Comet Halley has played an interesting role in human history, and may be the target of the first space vehicle probe of a comet, during its return in 1986.
Modern planetary scientists sometimes argue that the collision of a comet with a planet might make a significant contribution to the planetary atmosphere. For example, all the water in the atmosphere of Mars today could be accounted for by a recent impact of a small comet. Newton noted that the matter in the tails of comets is dissipated in interplanetary space, lost to the comet and little by little attracted gravitationally to nearby planets. He believed that the water on the Earth is gradually being lost, “spent upon vegetation and putrefaction, and converted into dry earth.… The fluids, if they are not supplied from without, must be in a continual decrease, and quite fail at last.” Newton seems to have believed that the Earth’s oceans are of cometary origin, and that life is possible only because cometary matter falls upon our planet. In a mystical reverie, he went still further: “I suspect, moreover, that it is chiefly from the comets that spirit comes, which is indeed the smallest but the most subtle and useful part of our air, and so much required to sustain the life of all things with us.”
As early as 1868 the astronomer William Huggins found an identity between some features in the spectrum of a comet and the spectrum of natural or “olefiant” gas. Huggins had found organic matter in the comets; in subsequent years cyanogen, CN, consisting of a carbon and a nitrogen atom, the molecular fragment that makes cyanides, was identified in the tails of comets. When the Earth was about to pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1910, many people panicked. They overlooked the fact that the tail of a comet is extravagantly diffuse: the actual danger from the poison in a comet’s tail is far less than the danger, even in 1910, from industrial pollution in large cities.
But that reassured almost no one. For example, headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle for May 15, 1910, include “Comet Camera as Big as a House,” “Comet Comes and Husband Reforms,” “Comet Parties Now Fad in New York.” The Los Angeles Examiner adopted a light mood: “Say! Has That Comet Cyanogened You Yet?… Entire Human Race Due for Free Gaseous Bath,” “Expect ‘High Jinks,’ ” “Many Feel Cyanogen Tang,” “Victim Climbs Trees, Tries to Phone Comet.” In 1910 there were parties, making merry before the world ended of cyanogen pollution. Entrepreneurs hawked anti-comet pills and gas masks, the latter an eerie premonition of the battlefields of World War I.
Some confusion about comets continues to our own time. In 1957, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. Alone in the observatory late one night, I heard the telephone ring persistently. When I answered, a voice, betraying a well-advanced state of inebriation, said, “Lemme talk to a shtrominer.” “Can I help you?” “Well, see, we’re havin’ this garden party out here in Wilmette, and there’s somethin’ in the sky. The funny part is, though, if you look straight at it, it goes away. But if you don’t look at it, there it is.” The most sensitive part of the retina is not at the center of the field of view. You can see faint stars and other objects by averting your vision slightly. I knew that, barely visible in the sky at this time, was a newly discovered comet called Arend-Roland. So I told him that he was probably looking at a comet. There was a long pause, followed by the query: “Wash’ a comet?” “A comet,” I replied, “is a snowball one mile across.” There was a longer pause, after which the caller requested, “Lemme talk to a real shtrominer.” When Halley’s Comet reappears in 1986, I wonder what political leaders will fear the apparition, what other silliness will then be upon us.
While the planets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, their orbits are not very elliptical. At first glance they are, by and large, indistinguishable from circles. It is the comets—especially the long-period comets—that have dramatically elliptical orbits. The planets are the old-timers in the inner solar system; the comets are the newcomers. Why are the planetary orbits nearly circular and neatly separated one from the other? Because if planets had very elliptical orbits, so that their paths intersected, sooner or later there would be a collision. In the early history of the solar system, there were probably many planets in the process of formation. Those with elliptical crossing orbits tended to collide and destroy themselves. Those with circular orbits tended to grow and survive. The orbits of the present planets are the orbits of the survivors of this collisional natural selection, the stable middle age of a solar system dominated by early catastrophic impacts.
In the outermost solar system, in the gloom far beyond the planets, there is a vast spherical cloud of a trillion cometary nuclei, orbiting the Sun no faster than a racing car at the Indianapolis 500.* A fairly typical comet would look like a giant tumbling snowball about 1 kilometer across. Most never penetrate the border marked by the orbit of Pluto. But occasionally a passing star makes a gravitational flurry and commotion in the cometary cloud, and a group of comets finds itself in highly elliptical orbits, plunging toward the Sun. After its path is further changed by gravitational encounters with Jupiter or Saturn, it tends to find itself, once every century or so, careering toward the inner solar system. Somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars it would begin heating and evaporating. Matter blown outwards from the Sun’s atmosphere, the solar wind, carries fragments of dust and ice back behind the comet, making an incipient tail. If Jupiter were a meter across, our comet would be smaller than a speck of dust, but when fully developed, its tail would be as great as the distances between the worlds. When within sight of the Earth on each of its orbits, it would stimulate outpourings of superstitious fervor among the Earthlings. But eventually they would understand that it lived not in their atmosphere, but out among the planets. They would calculate its orbit. And perhaps one day soon they would launch a small space vehicle devoted to exploring this visitor from the realm of the stars.
Sooner or later comets will collide with planets. The Earth and its companion the Moon must be bombarded by comets and small asteroids, debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Since there are more small objects than large ones, there should be more impacts by small objects than by large ones. An impact of a small cometary fragment with the Earth, as at Tunguska, should occur about once every thousand years. But an impact with a large comet, such as Halley’s Comet, whose nucleus is perhaps twenty kilometers across, should occur only about once every billion years.
When a small, icy object collides with a planet or a moon, it may not produce a very major scar. But if the impacting object is larger or made primarily of rock, there is an explosion on impact that carves out a hemispherical bowl called an impact crater. And if no process rubs out or fills in the crater, it may last for billions of years. Almost no erosion occurs on the Moon and when we examine its surface, we find it covered with impact craters, many more than can be accounted for by the rather sparse population of cometary and asteroidal debris that now fills the inner solar system. The lunar surface offers eloquent testimony of a previous age of the destruction of worlds, now billions of years gone.
Impact craters are not restricted to the Moon. We find them throughout the inner solar system—from Mercury, closest to the Sun, to cloud-covered Venus to Mars and its tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos. These are the terrestrial planets, our family of worlds, the planets more or less like the Earth. They have solid surfaces, interiors made of rock and iron, and atmospheres ranging from near-vacuum to pressures ninety times higher than the Earth’s. They huddle around the Sun, the source of light and heat, like campers around a fire. The planets are all about 4.6 billion years old. Like the Moon, they all bear witness to an age of impact catastrophism in the early history of the solar system.
As we move out past Mars we enter a very different regime—the realm of Jupiter and the other giant or jovian planets. These are great worlds, composed largely of hydrogen and helium, with smaller amounts of hydrogen-rich gases such as methane, ammonia and water. We do not see solid surfaces here, only the atmosphere and the multicolored clouds. These are serious planets, not fragmentary worldlets like the Earth. A thousand Earths could fit inside Jupiter. If a comet or an asteroid dropped into the atmosphere of Jupiter, we would not expect a visible crater, only a momentary break in the clouds. Nevertheless, we know there has been a many-billion-year history of collisions in the outer solar system as well—because Jupiter has a great system of more than a dozen moons, five of which were examined close up by the Voyager spacecraft. Here again we find evidence of past catastrophes. When the solar system is all explored, we will probably have evidence for impact catastrophism on all nine worlds, from Mercury to Pluto, and on all the smaller moons, comets and asteroids.
There are about 10,000 craters on the near side of the Moon, visible to telescopes on Earth. Most of them are in the ancient lunar highlands and date from the time of the final accretion of the Moon from interplanetary debris. There are about a thousand craters larger than a kilometer across in the maria (Latin for “seas”), the lowland regions that were flooded, perhaps by lava, shortly after the formation of the Moon, covering over the pre-existing craters. Thus, very roughly, craters on the Moon should be formed today at the rate of about 109 years/104 craters, = 105 years/crater, a hundred thousand years between cratering events. Since there may have been more interplanetary debris a few billion years ago than there is today, we might have to wait even longer than a hundred thousand years to see a crater form on the Moon. Because the Earth has a larger area than the Moon, we might have to wait something like ten thousand years between collisions that would make craters as big as a kilometer across on our planet. And since Meteor Crater, Arizona, an impact crater about a kilometer across, has been found to be twenty or thirty thousand years old, the observations on the Earth are in agreement with such crude calculations.
The actual impact of a small comet or asteroid with the Moon might make a momentary explosion sufficiently bright to be visible from the Earth. We can imagine our ancestors gazing idly up on some night a hundred thousand years ago and noting a strange cloud arising from the unilluminated part of the Moon, suddenly struck by the Sun’s rays. But we would not expect such an event to have happened in historical times. The odds against it must be something like a hundred to one. Nevertheless, there is an historical account which may in fact describe an impact on the Moon seen from Earth with the naked eye: On the evening of June 25, 1178, five British monks reported something extraordinary, which was later recorded in the chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury, generally considered a reliable reporter on the political and cultural events of his time, after he had interviewed the eyewitnesses who asserted, under oath, the truth of their story. The chronicle reads:
There was a bright New Moon, and as usual in that phase its horns were tilted towards the east. Suddenly, the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of the division, a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals, and sparks.
The astronomers Derral Mulholland and Odile Calame have calculated that a lunar impact would produce a dust cloud rising off the surface of the Moon with an appearance corresponding rather closely to the report of the Canterbury monks.
If such an impact were made only 800 years ago, the crater should still be visible. Erosion on the Moon is so inefficient, because of the absence of air and water, that even small craters a few billion years old are still comparatively well preserved. From the description recorded by Gervase, it is possible to pinpoint the sector of the Moon to which the observations refer. Impacts produce rays, linear trails of fine powder spewed out during the explosion. Such rays are associated with the very youngest craters on the Moon—for example, those named after Aristarchus and Copernicus and Kepler. But while the craters may withstand erosion on the Moon, the rays, being exceptionally thin, do not. As time goes on, even the arrival of micrometeorites—fine dust from space—stirs up and covers over the rays, and they gradually disappear. Thus rays are a signature of a recent impact.
The meteoriticist Jack Hartung has pointed out that a very recent, very fresh-looking small crater with a prominent ray system lies exactly in the region of the Moon referred to by the Canterbury monks. It is called Giordano Bruno after the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic scholar who held that there are an infinity of worlds and that many are inhabited. For this and other crimes he was burned at the stake in the year 1600.
Another line of evidence consistent with this interpretation has been provided by Calame and Mulholland. When an object impacts the Moon at high speed, it sets the Moon slightly wobbling. Eventually the vibrations die down but not in so short a period as eight hundred years. Such a quivering can be studied by laser reflection techniques. The Apollo astronauts emplaced in several locales on the Moon special mirrors called laser retroreflectors. When a laser beam from Earth strikes the mirror and bounces back, the round-trip travel time can be measured with remarkable precision. This time multiplied by the speed of light gives us the distance to the Moon at that moment to equally remarkable precision. Such measurements, performed over a period of years, reveal the Moon to be librating, or quivering with a period (about three years) and amplitude (about three meters), consistent with the idea that the crater Giordano Bruno was gouged out less than a thousand years ago.
All this evidence is inferential and indirect. The odds, as I have said, are against such an event happening in historical times. But the evidence is at least suggestive. As the Tunguska Event and Meteor Crater, Arizona, also remind us, not all impact catastrophes occurred in the early history of the solar system. But the fact that only a few of the lunar craters have extensive ray systems also reminds us that, even on the Moon, some erosion occurs.* By noting which craters overlap which and other signs of lunar stratigraphy, we can reconstruct the sequence of impact and flooding events of which the production of crater Bruno is perhaps the most recent example. On this page is an attempt to visualize the events that made the surface of the lunar hemisphere we see from Earth.
The Earth is very near the Moon. If the Moon is so severely cratered by impacts, how has the Earth avoided them? Why is Meteor Crater so rare? Do the comets and asteroids think it inadvisable to impact an inhabited planet? This is an unlikely forbearance. The only possible explanation is that impact craters are formed at very similar rates on both the Earth and the Moon, but that on the airless, waterless Moon they are preserved for immense periods of time, while on the Earth slow erosion wipes them out or fills them in. Running water, windblown sand and mountain-building are very slow processes. But over millions or billions of years, they are capable of utterly erasing even very large impact scars.
On the surface of any moon or planet, there will be external processes, such as impacts from space, and internal processes, such as earthquakes; there will be fast, catastrophic events, such as volcanic explosions, and processes of excruciating slowness, such as the pitting of a surface by tiny airborne sand grains. There is no general answer to the question of which processes dominate, the outside ones or the inside ones; the rare but violent events, or the common and inconspicuous occurrences. On the Moon, the outside, catastrophic events hold sway; on Earth, the inside, slow processes dominate. Mars is an intermediate case.
Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter are countless asteroids, tiny terrestrial planets. The largest are a few hundred kilometers across. Many have oblong shapes and are tumbling through space. In some cases there seem to be two or more asteroids in tight mutual orbits. Collisions among the asteroids happen frequently, and occasionally a piece is chipped off and accidentally intercepts the Earth, falling to the ground as a meteorite. In the exhibits, on the shelves of our museums are the fragments of distant worlds. The asteroid belt is a great grinding mill, producing smaller and smaller pieces down to motes of dust. The bigger asteroidal pieces, along with the comets, are mainly responsible for the recent craters on planetary surfaces. The asteroid belt may be a place where a planet was once prevented from forming because of the gravitational tides of the giant nearby planet Jupiter; or it may be the shattered remains of a planet that blew itself up. This seems improbable because no scientist on Earth knows how a planet might blow itself up, which is probably just as well.
The rings of Saturn bear some resemblance to the asteroid belt: trillions of tiny icy moonlets orbiting the planet. They may represent debris prevented by the gravity of Saturn from accreting into a nearby moon, or they may be the remains of a moon that wandered too close and was torn apart by the gravitational tides. Alternatively, they may be the steady state equilibrium between material ejected from a moon of Saturn, such as Titan, and material falling into the atmosphere of the planet. Jupiter and Uranus also have ring systems, discovered only recently, and almost invisible from the Earth. Whether Neptune has a ring is a problem high on the agenda of planetary scientists. Rings may be a typical adornment of Jovian-type planets throughout the cosmos.
Major recent collisions from Saturn to Venus were alleged in a popular book, Worlds in Collision, published in 1950 by a psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky. He proposed that an object of planetary mass, which he called a comet, was somehow generated in the Jupiter system. Some 3,500 years ago, it careered in toward the inner solar system and made repeated encounters with the Earth and Mars, having as incidental consequences the parting of the Red Sea, allowing Moses and the Israelites to escape from Pharaoh, and the stopping of the Earth from rotating on Joshua’s command. It also caused, he said, extensive vulcanism and floods.* Velikovsky imagined the comet, after a complicated game of interplanetary billiards, to settle down into a stable, nearly circular orbit, becoming the planet Venus—which he claimed never existed before then.
As I have discussed at some length elsewhere, these ideas are almost certainly wrong. Astronomers do not object to the idea of major collisions, only to major recent collisions. In any model of the solar system it is impossible to show the sizes of the planets on the same scale as their orbits, because the planets would then be almost too small to see. If the planets were really shown to scale, as grains of dust, we would easily note that the chance of collision of a particular comet with the Earth in a few thousand years is extraordinarily low. Moreover, Venus is a rocky and metallic, hydrogen-poor planet, whereas Jupiter—where Velikovsky supposed it comes from—is made almost entirely of hydrogen. There are no energy sources for comets or planets to be ejected by Jupiter. If one passed by the Earth, it could not “stop” the Earth’s rotation, much less start it up again at twenty-four hours a day. No geological evidence supports the idea of an unusual frequency of vulcanism or floods 3,500 years ago. There are Mesopotamian inscriptions referring to Venus that predate the time when Velikovsky says Venus changed from a comet into a planet.† It is very unlikely that an object in such a highly elliptical orbit could be rapidly moved into the nearly perfectly circular orbit of present-day Venus. And so on.
Many hypotheses proposed by scientists as well as by non-scientists turn out to be wrong. But science is a self-correcting enterprise. To be accepted, all new ideas must survive rigorous standards of evidence. The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that his hypotheses were wrong or in contradiction to firmly established facts, but that some who called themselves scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s work. Science is generated by and devoted to free inquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science. We do not know in advance who will discover fundamental new insights.
Venus has almost the same mass,* size, and density as the Earth. As the nearest planet, it has for centuries been thought of as the Earth’s sister. What is our sister planet really like? Might it be a balmy, summer planet, a little warmer than the Earth because it is a little closer to the Sun? Does it have impact craters, or have they all eroded away? Are there volcanoes? Mountains? Oceans? Life?
The first person to look at Venus through the telescope was Galileo in 1609. He saw an absolutely featureless disc. Galileo noted that it went through phases, like the Moon, from a thin crescent to a full disc, and for the same reason: we are sometimes looking mostly at the night side of Venus and sometimes mostly at the day side, a finding that incidentally reinforced the view that the Earth went around the Sun and not vice versa. As optical telescopes became larger and their resolution (or ability to discriminate fine detail) improved, they were systematically turned toward Venus. But they did no better than Galileo’s. Venus was evidently covered by a dense layer of obscuring cloud. When we look at the planet in the morning or evening skies, we are seeing sunlight reflected off the clouds of Venus. But for centuries after their discovery, the composition of those clouds remained entirely unknown.
The absence of anything to see on Venus led some scientists to the curious conclusion that the surface was a swamp, like the Earth in the Carboniferous Period. The argument—if we can dignify it by such a word—went something like this:
“I can’t see a thing on Venus.”
“Because it’s totally covered with clouds.”
“What are clouds made of?”
“Water, of course.”
“Then why are the clouds of Venus thicker than the clouds on Earth?”
“Because there’s more water there.”
“But if there is more water in the clouds, there must be more water on the surface. What kind of surfaces are very wet?”
And if there are swamps, why not cyacads and dragonflies and perhaps even dinosaurs on Venus? Observation: There was absolutely nothing to see on Venus. Conclusion: It must be covered with life. The featureless clouds of Venus reflected our own predispositions. We are alive, and we resonate with the idea of life elsewhere. But only careful accumulation and assessment of the evidence can tell us whether a given world is inhabited. Venus turns out not to oblige our predispositions.
The first real clue to the nature of Venus came from work with a prism made of glass or a flat surface, called a diffraction grating, covered with fine, regularly spaced, ruled lines. When an intense beam of ordinary white light passes through a narrow slit and then through a prism or grating, it is spread into a rainbow of colors called a spectrum. The spectrum runs from high frequencies* of visible light to low ones—violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Since we see these colors, it is called the spectrum of visible light. But there is far more light than the small segment of the spectrum we can see. At higher frequencies, beyond the violet, is a part of the spectrum called the ultraviolet: a perfectly real kind of light, carrying death to the microbes. It is invisible to us, but readily detectable by bumblebees and photoelectric cells. There is much more to the world than we can see. Beyond the ultraviolet is the X-ray part of the spectrum, and beyond the X-rays are the gamma rays. At lower frequencies, on the other side of red, is the infrared part of the spectrum. It was first discovered by placing a sensitive thermometer in what to our eyes is the dark beyond the red. The temperature rose. There was light falling on the thermometer even though it was invisible to our eyes. Rattlesnakes and doped semiconductors detect infrared radiation perfectly well. Beyond the infrared is the vast spectral region of the radio waves. From gamma rays to radio waves, all are equally respectable brands of light. All are useful in astronomy. But because of the limitations of our eyes, we have a prejudice, a bias, toward that tiny rainbow band we call the spectrum of visible light.
In 1844, the philosopher Auguste Comte was searching for an example of a sort of knowledge that would be always hidden. He chose the composition of distant stars and planets. We would never physically visit them, he thought, and with no sample in hand it seemed we would forever be denied knowledge of their composition. But only three years after Comte’s death, it was discovered that a spectrum can be used to determine the chemistry of distant objects. Different molecules and chemical elements absorb different frequencies or colors of light, sometimes in the visible and sometimes elsewhere in the spectrum. In the spectrum of a planetary atmosphere, a single dark line represents an image of the slit in which light is missing, the absorption of sunlight during its brief passage through the air of another world. Each such line is made by a particular kind of molecule or atom. Every substance has its characteristic spectral signature. The gases on Venus can be identified from the Earth, 60 million kilometers away. We can divine the composition of the Sun (in which helium, named after the Greek sun god Helios, was first found); of magnetic A stars rich in europium; of distant galaxies analyzed through the collective light of a hundred billion constituent stars. Astronomical spectroscopy is an almost magical technique. It amazes me still. Auguste Comte picked a particularly unfortunate example.
If Venus were soaking wet, it should be easy to see the water vapor lines in its spectrum. But the first spectroscopic searches, attempted at Mount Wilson Observatory around 1920, found not a hint, not a trace, of water vapor above the clouds of Venus, suggesting an arid, desert-like surface, surmounted by clouds of fine drifting silicate dust. Further study revealed enormous quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, implying to some scientists that all the water on the planet had combined with hydrocarbons to form carbon dioxide, and that therefore the surface of Venus was a global oil field, a planet-wide sea of petroleum. Others concluded that there was no water vapor above the clouds because the clouds were very cold, that all the water had condensed out into water droplets, which do not have the same pattern of spectral lines as water vapor. They suggested that the planet was totally covered with water—except perhaps for an occasional limestone-encrusted island, like the cliffs of Dover. But because of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the sea could not be ordinary water; physical chemistry required carbonated water. Venus, they proposed, had a vast ocean of seltzer.
Schematic diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum. The wavelength of light is measured in Ångstroms (Å), micrometers (μm), centimeters (cm) and meters (m).
The first hint of the true situation came not from spectroscopic studies in the visible or near-infrared parts of the spectrum, but rather from the radio region. A radio telescope works more like a light meter than a camera. You point it toward some fairly broad region of the sky, and it records how much energy, in a particular radio frequency, is coming down to Earth. We are used to radio signals transmitted by some varieties of intelligent life—namely, those who run radio and television stations. But there are many other reasons for natural objects to give off radio waves. One is that they are hot. And when, in 1956, an early radio telescope was turned toward Venus, it was discovered to be emitting radio waves as if it were at an extremely high temperature. But the real demonstration that the surface of Venus is astonishingly hot came when the Soviet spacecraft of the Venera series first penetrated the obscuring clouds and landed on the mysterious and inaccessible surface of the nearest planet. Venus, it turns out, is broiling hot. There are no swamps, no oil fields, no seltzer oceans. With insufficient data, it is easy to go wrong.
When I greet a friend, I am seeing her in reflected visible light, generated by the Sun, say, or by an incandescent lamp. The light rays bounce off my friend and into my eye. But the ancients, including no less a figure than Euclid, believed that we see by virtue of rays somehow emitted by the eye and tangibly, actively contacting the object observed. This is a natural notion and can still be encountered, although it does not account for the invisibility of objects in a darkened room. Today we combine a laser and a photocell, or a radar transmitter and a radio telescope, and in this way make active contact by light with distant objects. In radar astronomy, radio waves are transmitted by a telescope on Earth, strike, say, that hemisphere of Venus that happens to be facing the Earth, and bounce back. At many wavelengths the clouds and atmosphere of Venus are entirely transparent to radio waves. Some places on the surface will absorb them or, if they are very rough, will scatter them sideways and so will appear dark to radio waves. By following the surface features moving with Venus as it rotates, it was possible for the first time to determine reliably the length of its day—how long it takes Venus to spin once on its axis. It turns out that, with respect to the stars, Venus turns once every 243 Earth days, but backwards, in the opposite direction from all other planets in the inner solar system. As a result, the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, taking 118 Earth days from sunrise to sunrise. What is more, it presents almost exactly the same face to the Earth each time it is closest to our planet. However the Earth’s gravity has managed to nudge Venus into this Earth-locked rotation rate, it cannot have happened rapidly. Venus could not be a mere few thousand years old but, rather, it must be as old as all the other objects in the inner solar system.
Radar pictures of Venus have been obtained, some from ground-based radar telescopes, some from the Pioneer Venus vehicle in orbit around the planet. They show provocative evidence of impact craters. There are just as many craters that are not too big or too small on Venus as there are in the lunar highlands, so many that Venus is again telling us that it is very old. But the craters of Venus are remarkably shallow, almost as if the high surface temperatures have produced a kind of rock that flows over long periods of time, like taffy or putty, gradually softening the relief. There are great mesas here, twice as high as the Tibetan plateau, an immense rift valley, possibly giant volcanoes and a mountain as high as Everest. We now see before us a world previously hidden entirely by clouds—its features first explored by radar and by space vehicles.
The surface temperatures on Venus, as deduced from radio astronomy and confirmed by direct spacecraft measurements, are around 480°C or 900°F, hotter than the hottest household oven. The corresponding surface pressure is 90 atmospheres, 90 times the pressure we feel from the Earth’s atmosphere, the equivalent of the weight of water 1 kilometer below the surface of the oceans. To survive for long on Venus, a space vehicle would have to be refrigerated as well as built like a deep submersible.
Something like a dozen space vehicles from the Soviet Union and United States have entered the dense Venus atmosphere, and penetrated the clouds; a few of them have actually survived for an hour or so on the surface.* Two spacecraft in the Soviet Venera series have taken pictures down there. Let us follow in the footsteps of these pioneering missions, and visit another world.
In ordinary visible light, the faintly yellowish clouds of Venus can be made out, but they show, as Galileo first noted, virtually no features at all. If the cameras look in the ultraviolet, however, we see a graceful, complex swirling weather system in the high atmosphere, where the winds are around 100 meters per second, some 220 miles per hour. The atmosphere of Venus is composed of 96 percent carbon dioxide. There are small traces of nitrogen, water vapor, argon, carbon monoxide and other gases, but the only hydrocarbons or carbohydrates present are there in less than 0.1 parts per million. The clouds of Venus turn out to be chiefly a concentrated solution of sulfuric acid. Small quantities of hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid are also present. Even at its high, cool clouds, Venus turns out to be a thoroughly nasty place.
High above the visible cloud deck, at about 70 kilometers altitude, there is a continuous haze of small particles. At 60 kilometers, we plunge into the clouds, and find ourselves surrounded by droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid. As we go deeper, the cloud particles tend to get bigger. The pungent gas, sulfur dioxide, SO2, is present in trace amounts in the lower atmosphere. It is circulated up above the clouds, broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun and recombined with water there to form sulfuric acid—which condenses into droplets, settles, and at lower altitudes is broken down by heat into SO2 and water again, completing the cycle. It is always raining sulfuric acid on Venus, all over the planet, and not a drop ever reaches the surface.
The sulfur-colored mist extends downwards to some 45 kilometers above the surface of Venus, where we emerge into a dense but crystal-clear atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure is so high, however, that we cannot see the surface. Sunlight is bounced about by atmospheric molecules until we lose all images from the surface. There is no dust here, no clouds, just an atmosphere getting palpably denser. Plenty of sunlight is transmitted by the overlying clouds, about as much as on an overcast day on the Earth.
With searing heat, crushing pressures, noxious gases and everything suffused in an eerie, reddish glow, Venus seems less the goddess of love than the incarnation of hell. As nearly as we can make out, at least some places on the surface are strewn fields of jumbled, softened irregular rocks, a hostile, barren landscape relieved only here and there by the eroded remnants of a derelict spacecraft from a distant planet, utterly invisible through the thick, cloudy, poisonous atmosphere.*
Venus is a kind of planet-wide catastrophe. It now seems reasonably clear that the high surface temperature comes about through a massive greenhouse effect. Sunlight passes through the atmosphere and clouds of Venus, which are semi-transparent to visible light, and reaches the surface. The surface being heated endeavors to radiate back into space. But because Venus is much cooler than the Sun, it emits radiation chiefly in the infrared rather than the visible region of the spectrum. However, the carbon dioxide and water vapor† in the Venus atmosphere are almost perfectly opaque to infrared radiation, the heat of the Sun is efficiently trapped, and the surface temperature rises—until the little amount of infrared radiation that trickles out of this massive atmosphere just balances the sunlight absorbed in the lower atmopshere and surface.
Our neighboring world turns out to be a dismally unpleasant place. But we will go back to Venus. It is fascinating in its own right. Many mythic heroes in Greek and Norse mythology, after all, made celebrated efforts to visit Hell. There is also much to be learned about our planet, a comparative Heaven, by comparing it with Hell.
The Sphinx, half human, half lion, was constructed more than 5,500 years ago. Its face was once crisp and cleanly rendered. It is now softened and blurred by thousands of years of Egyptian desert sandblasting and by occasional rains. In New York City there is an obelisk called Cleopatra’s Needle, which came from Egypt. In only about a hundred years in that city’s Central Park, its inscriptions have been almost totally obliterated, because of smog and industrial pollution—chemical erosion like that in the atmosphere of Venus. Erosion on Earth slowly wipes out information, but because they are gradual—the patter of a raindrop, the sting of a sand grain—those processes can be missed. Big structures, such as mountain ranges, survive tens of millions of years; smaller impact craters, perhaps a hundred thousand*; and large-scale human artifacts only some thousands. In addition to such slow and uniform erosion, destruction also occurs through catastrophes large and small. The Sphinx is missing a nose. Someone shot it off in a moment of idle desecration—some say it was Mameluke Turks, others, Napoleonic soldiers.
On Venus, on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system, there is evidence for catastrophic destruction, tempered or overwhelmed by slower, more uniform processes: on the Earth, for example, rainfall, coursing into rivulets, streams and rivers of running water, creating huge alluvial basins; on Mars, the remnants of ancient rivers, perhaps arising from beneath the ground; on Io, a moon of Jupiter, what seem to be broad channels made by flowing liquid sulfur. There are mighty weather systems on the Earth—and in the high atmosphere of Venus and on Jupiter. There are sandstorms on the Earth and on Mars; lightning on Jupiter and Venus and Earth. Volcanoes inject debris into the atmospheres of the Earth and Io. Internal geological processes slowly deform the surfaces of Venus, Mars, Ganymede and Europa, as well as Earth. Glaciers, proverbial for their slowness, produce major reworkings of landscapes on the Earth and probably also on Mars. These processes need not be constant in time. Most of Europe was once covered with ice. A few million years ago, the present site of the city of Chicago was buried under three kilometers of frost. On Mars, and elsewhere in the solar system, we see features that could not be produced today, landscapes carved hundreds of millions or billions of years ago when the planetary climate was probably very different.
There is an additional factor that can alter the landscape and the climate of Earth: intelligent life, able to make major environmental changes. Like Venus, the Earth also has a greenhouse effect due to its carbon dioxide and water vapor. The global temperature of the Earth would be below the freezing point of water if not for the greenhouse effect. It keeps the oceans liquid and life possible. A little greenhouse is a good thing. Like Venus, the Earth also has about 90 atmospheres of carbon dioxide; but it resides in the crust as limestone and other carbonates, not in the atmosphere. If the Earth were moved only a little closer to the Sun, the temperature would increase slightly. This would drive some of the CO2 out of the surface rocks, generating a stronger greenhouse effect, which would in turn incrementally heat the surface further. A hotter surface would vaporize still more carbonates into CO2, and there would be the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect to very high temperatures. This is just what we think happened in the early history of Venus, because of Venus’ proximity to the Sun. The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.
The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two-degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long-term effects of our course of action.
But we have also been perturbing the climate in the opposite sense. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been burning and cutting down forests and encouraging domestic animals to graze on and destroy grasslands. Slash-and-burn agriculture, industrial tropical deforestation and overgrazing are rampant today. But forests are darker than grasslands, and grasslands are darker than deserts. As a consequence, the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by the ground has been declining, and by changes in the land use we are lowering the surface temperature of our planet. Might this cooling increase the size of the polar ice cap, which, because it is bright, will reflect still more sunlight from the Earth, further cooling the planet, driving a runaway albedo* effect?
Our lovely blue planet, the Earth, is the only home we know. Venus is too hot. Mars is too cold. But the Earth is just right, a heaven for humans. After all, we evolved here. But our congenial climate may be unstable. We are perturbing our poor planet in serious and contradictory ways. Is there any danger of driving the environment of the Earth toward the planetary Hell of Venus or the global ice age of Mars? The simple answer is that nobody knows. The study of the global climate, the comparison of the Earth with other worlds, are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are fields that are poorly and grudgingly funded. In our ignorance, we continue to push and pull, to pollute the atmosphere and brighten the land, oblivious of the fact that the long-term consequences are largely unknown.
A few million years ago, when human beings first evolved on Earth, it was already a middle-aged world, 4.6 billion years along from the catastrophes and impetuosities of its youth. But we humans now represent a new and perhaps decisive factor. Our intelligence and our technology have given us the power to affect the climate. How will we use this power? Are we willing to tolerate ignorance and complacency in matters that affect the entire human family? Do we value short-term advantages above the welfare of the Earth? Or will we think on longer time scales, with concern for our children and our grandchildren, to understand and protect the complex life-support systems of our planet? The Earth is a tiny and fragile world. It needs to be cherished.
*That meteors and meteorites are connected with the comets was first proposed by Alexander von Humboldt in his broad-gauge popularization of all of science, published in the years 1845 to 1862, a work called Kosmos. It was reading Humboldt’s earlier work that fired the young Charles Darwin to embark on a career combining geographical exploration and natural history. Shortly thereafter he accepted a position as naturalist aboard the ship H.M.S. Beagle, the event that led to The Origin of Species.
*The Earth is r = 1 astronomical unit = 150,000,000 kilometers from the Sun. Its roughly circular orbit then has a circumference of 2пr ≈ 109 km. Our planet circulates once along this path every year. One year = 3 × 107 seconds. So the Earth’s orbital speed is 109 km/3 × 107 sec ≈ 30 km/sec. Now consider the spherical shell of orbiting comets that many astronomers believe surrounds the solar system at a distance ≈ 100,000 astronomical units, almost halfway to the nearest star. From Kepler’s third law (p. 50) it immediately follows mat the orbital period about the Sun of any one of them is about (105) = 107.5 ≈ 3 × 107 or 30 million years. Once around the Sun is a long time if you live in the outer reaches of the solar system. The cometary orbit is 2пa = 2п × 105 × 1.5 × 108 km ≈ 1014 km around, and its speed is therefore only 1014 km/1015 sec = 0.1 km/sec ≈ 220 miles per hour.
*On Mars, where erosion is much more efficient, although there are many craters there are virtually no ray craters, as we would expect.
*As far as I know, the first essentially nonmystical attempt to explain a historical event by cometary intervention was Edmund Halley’s proposal that the Noachic flood was “the casual Choc [shock] of a Comet.”
†The Adda cylinder seal, dating from the middle of the third millennium B.C., prominently displays Inanna, the goddess of Venus, the morning star, and precursor of the Babylonian Ishtar.
*It is, incidentally, some 30 million times more massive than the most massive comet known.
*Light is a wave motion; its frequency is the number of wave crests, say, entering a detection instrument, such as a retina, in a given unit of time, such as a second. The higher the frequency, the more energetic the radiation.
*Pioneer Venus was a successful U.S. mission in 1978–79, combining an orbiter and four atmospheric entry probes, two of which briefly survived the inclemencies of the Venus surface. There are many unexpected developments in mustering spacecraft to explore the planets. This is one of them: Among the instruments aboard one of the Pioneer Venus entry probes was a net flux radiometer, designed to measure simultaneously the amount of infrared energy flowing upwards and downwards at each position in the Venus atmosphere. The instrument required a sturdy window that was also transparent to infrared radiation. A 13.5-karat diamond was imported and milled into the desired window. However, the contractor was required to pay a $12,000 import duty. Eventually, the U.S. Customs service decided that after the diamond was launched to Venus it was unavailable for trade on Earth and refunded the money to the manufacturer.
*In this stifling landscape, there is not likely to be anything alive, even creatures very different from us. Organic and other conceivable biological molecules would simply fall to pieces. But, as an indulgence, let us imagine that intelligent life once evolved on such a planet. Would it then invent science? The development of science on Earth was spurred fundamentally by observations of the regularities of the stars and planets. But Venus is completely cloud-covered. The night is pleasingly long—about 59 Earth days long—but nothing of the astronomical universe would be visible if you looked up into the night sky of Venus. Even the Sun would be invisible in the daytime; its light would be scattered and diffused over the whole sky—just as scuba divers see only a uniform enveloping radiance beneath the sea. If a radio telescope were built on Venus, it could detect the Sun, the Earth and other distant objects. If astrophysics developed, the existence of stars could eventually be deduced from the principles of physics, but they would be theoretical constructs only. I sometimes wonder what their reaction would be if intelligent beings on Venus one day learned to fly, to sail in the dense air, to penetrate the mysterious cloud veil 45 kilometers above them and eventually to emerge out the top of the clouds, to look up and for the first time witness that glorious universe of Sun and planets and stars.
†At the present time there is still a little uncertainty about the abundance of water vapor on Venus. The gas Chromatograph on the Pioneer Venus entry probes gave an abundance of water in the lower atmosphere of a few tenths of a percent. On the other hand, infrared measurements by the Soviet entry vehicles, Veneras 11 and 12, gave an abundance of about a hundredth of a percent. If the former value applies, then carbon dioxide and water vapor alone are adequate to seal in almost all the heat radiation from the surface and keep the Venus ground temperature at about 480°C. If the latter number applies—and my guess is that it is the more reliable estimate—then carbon dioxide and water vapor alone are adequate to keep the surface temperature only at about 380°C, and some other atmospheric constituent is necessary to close the remaining infrared frequency windows in the atmospheric greenhouse. However, the small quantities of SO2, CO and HC1, all of which have been detected in the Venus atmosphere, seem adequate for this purpose. Thus recent American and Soviet missions to Venus seem to have provided verification that the greenhouse effect is indeed the reason for the high surface temperature.
*More precisely, an impact crater 10 kilometers in diameter is produced on the Earth about once every 500,000 years; it would survive erosion for about 300 million years in areas that are geologically stable, such as Europe and North America. Smaller craters are produced more frequently and destroyed more rapidly, especially in geologically active regions.
*The albedo is the fraction of the sunlight striking a planet that is reflected back to space. The albedo of the Earth is some 30 to 35 percent. The rest of the sunlight is absorbed by the ground and is responsible for the average surface temperature.