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Under The Martinborough Stars

December 9, 2019 December 2019 No Comments

We used to have a special file at Carter Observatory that all the strange, unidentified and mysterious objects used to be filed in. If someone saw something weird, they would phone up the Observatory and give a description of the object.

Unfortunately for all you alien hunters, it turned out that these strange objects were nearly always a much more boring answer: Venus.

Venus has always been a bit of a mystery. It has thick clouds in its atmosphere, so it reflects sunlight incredibly well and is the second brightest object in the sky after the Moon. It can even cast a shadow.

Venus always appears at sunset or sunrise, hovering above the horizon and shimmering, changing colours or twinkling. We look at Venus through our own thick atmosphere, so it gets easily distorted.  

It is often thought as Earth’s twin because it is of similar size, but actually it is very different. It is the hottest planet in the Solar System even though Mercury is closer. The surface is hot enough to melt lead and has the most volcanoes of any planet.

The same cloudy atmosphere keeps heat in, Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect, something we have heard about for the future of our own planet.

Putting this hellishy hot vision to one side, Venus is a fascinating planet. It is the only planet that has its day longer than a year. Venus takes 243 Earth days to spin around once (one Veniatian day) but only 225 earth days to orbit completely round the Sun.

But could this strange and twinkling planet be a place that we could find aliens after all? The answer could be YES but it depends what you count as life and where you look.

Scientists believe that where you find water in the Universe, there is a likelihood of life.  Water is the universal solvent, one of the most common molecules in the Universe. Chances are, where there is water, there is life. 

Looking at Venus, this hellishly hot and volcanic planet in the Solar System, could there be life here? One current theory is that even if life couldn’t survive on land, life may survive in the thick clouds instead.

This isn’t as silly as you’d think, microbes have been found in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Venus and Earth were similar in the past, but Venus’s water evaporated into the atmosphere. If aliens need water to survive, perhaps Carl Sagan’s comments in the 60’s weren’t so silly after all.  

Look out for Venus low in the western horizon next time you are out at sunset. Somewhere flat with a clear horizon is perfect for observing. Star Field in Ruakokoputuna, StoneHenge Aotearoa in Carterton or Ranui Lavender Fields will all give ideal viewing over the coming months.

And you never know, we may have to revisit those old files if we find aliens on Venus after all.

Becky Bateman runs Under The Stars, the nomadic and award winning stargazing service.

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