Living on Venus

In this post I’ll look into the distant future and talk about humans living and building settlements on the planet Venus. Because it is well beyond what we can achieve with our current technology, it is a topic that been more in the realm of science fiction rather than factual scientific writing. However, even though there are many difficult obstacles in the way, I think it is very likely to happen at some point in the distant future.

Venus-real

Venus as seen through a telescope – image from NASA.

Why would we want to live on Venus?

There are a number of reasons why humans would want to colonise Venus.  The first three also apply to the Moon, Mars or Mercury.

  • To ensure the continuation of humanity. While the human species is restricted to life on a single planet it is vulnerable to extinction caused by natural or man made disasters.  If humans could live in a self supporting colony outside the Earth then this would provide a Plan B to allow the continuation of our species. Indeed the British physicist Stephen Hawking recently said:

“I believe that the long term future of the human race must be space and that it represents an important life insurance for our future survival, as it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonising other planets.”

Stephen Hawkins NASA

Image from NASA

  • To spread human civilisation to other places.  Since humans first evolved, they have constantly sought to expand to new territories. It seems to be almost a biological imperative to find other places to live.  There are not many uninhabited places on Earth, so humans may one day extend their civilisation beyond our planet.
  • To stimulate the economy.  Despite the enormous cost, building colonies outside the Earth would give a huge stimulus to the Earth’s economy. There may well be spin-offs in the same way that the Apollo programme in the sixties and early seventies led to huge technological developments unconnected to space travel.
  • It is relatively easy to get to. Compared to Mars and Mercury, Venus gets closer to the Earth (Williams 2015 a,b). At its closest approach it is 40 million km away from Earth, whereas Mars at its closest approach is still around 80 million km away. It is therefore easier to reach.
  • Larger surface area. Venus is almost the same size as the Earth (ibid). This means that it has almost 4 times the surface area of Mars and 15 times the surface area of the Moon, giving a greater area to colonise.

Earth Venus Mars

  • Similar gravity to the Earth. When astronauts spend long periods of time in a low gravity environment, such as the International Space Station, their bones and muscles weaken. It is not known if the weak gravity on the Moon (16% of the Earth’s gravity) or Mars (38% of the Earth’s gravity) would be sufficient to prevent this happening. The surface gravity on Venus is 91% of that of the Earth which would be sufficient.
  • More solar energy. Any colony would be likely to use solar energy as its main energy source. Venus is closer to the sun than the Earth and receives roughly twice as much solar energy as the Earth. See Notes at the end of this post.

Obstacles

As readers of my previous post will know, Venus is a very inhospitable world. Its surface temperature is on average nearly 500 degrees Celsius and its air pressure is a crushing 92 times that of the Earth. No spacecraft has been able to survive for longer than about an hour on its surface without being destroyed by the intense heat and pressure. The thick atmosphere forms a thermal blanket around the planet. So even at the poles the temperature is not any cooler and, although the temperature drops with altitude, there is nowhere on the planet’s surface which is less than than 380 degrees Celsius. In addition, there is almost no water or oxygen in the atmosphere – both of which are essential for life and Venus does not have a magnetic field to protect the planet from the harmful effects of the solar wind.

Floating cities?

Because the temperature and pressure both fall with altitude there is a region around 50 km above the planet’s surface where both the atmospheric pressure and temperature are similar to that on the Earth.

Venusatmosphere

The graph above shows how the temperature and pressure of Venus’s atmosphere varies with altitude (from Wikimedia Common). 1 Bar is air pressure at sea level on Earth

At this 50 km point, the atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like environment, other than Earth itself, in the Solar System. In a paper written in 2008, the NASA scientist Geoffrey Landis suggested building floating cities in the Venusian atmosphere (Atkinson 2008) .  The atmosphere of Venus consists of 97% carbon dioxide, which is denser than the Earth’s atmosphere, which is mainly composed of nitrogen and oxygen. Landis suggested that a large space filled with with breathable air could float high above the Venusian surface in the same way that a helium balloon floats in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Venus Floating City

It would be possible to build large enough spaces for humans to live and work in, although there is the obvious risk that if there were a major leak the entire structure would fall down to the surface to its destruction.

Terraforming Venus

I think that humans will only be able to live on Venus after the entire planet has been transformed to make it more Earth like. This is called terraforming. This process, which is well beyond our current technology, and is at the moment more in the realm of science fiction writers, will involve removing nearly all the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, adding oxygen, reducing the surface temperature and pressure to similar values to those on Earth, and adding water. It will also be necessary to do something about the long day/night cycles.  A day on Venus lasts 116.8 Earth day which is too long for Earth life to adapt to. (Incidentally, Mrs Geek recently read and enjoyed Karen Thompson Walker’s novel “The Age of Miracles” which describes how humanity struggles to adapt to a world in which the length of a day is much longer than 24 hours.)

In my next post I will discuss how, if humanity doesn’t destroy itself and we become a very advanced civilisation, we could terraform Venus.

The Science Geek

http://www.thesciencegeek.org

https://www.facebook.com/thesciencegeek01/

 

Notes

Interestingly, the amount of solar energy reaching the surface of Venus is, on average, far less than that reaching the surface of the Earth. This is because, although Venus gets more sunlight, most of the solar energy which hits Venus is reflected back into space by the thick cloud layer high above the planet’s surface. Most of the remaining sunlight is absorbed by the thick atmosphere before it reaches Venus’s surface.  Howver,If Venus is terraformed its surface will get more sunlight than the Earth, because its clouds and atmosphere will be much thinner.

References

Atkinson N. (2008) Colonizing Venus with floating cities, Available at:http://www.universetoday.com/15570/colonizing-venus-with-floating-cities/ (Accessed: 23 Jan 2016).

Williams D R (2015a) Mars fact sheet, Available at:http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/marsfact.html (Accessed: 23 Jan 2016).

Williams D R (2015b) Venus fact sheet, Available at:http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/venusfact.html (Accessed: 23 Jan 2016).

44 thoughts on “Living on Venus”

  1. Even if we could float cities in the atmosphere, or even terraform the surface, we’d still have the problem that Venus does not have a magnetic field. There’s none of the radiation protection there that we benefit from here on Earth. That’s probably a bigger obstacle than the day/night cycles.

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      1. That seems a lot harder than floating cities! I remember back in college calculating how much current it would take running in a wire around the earth’s equator to cancel out the earth’s magnetic field, and I also calculated how quickly that kind of enormous current would melt the wire. (Really fast!) A field of that magnitude seems far beyond our capabilities anytime soon.

        Perhaps we could come up with some other kind of radiation shield, or work with smaller localized ones over our settlements.

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      2. Radiation shielding (via magnetic fields our otherwise) is a problem that will need to be solved just to get to another planet, let alone establish a colony there. It might be advantageous to develop a solution that could be used on a ship and also scaled up to be used in a large colonial structure like the floating cities of Venus.

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    1. You are absolutely right that he lack of a global magnetic field poses a serious obstacle to us living on Venus. To illustrate the challenge faced, and following your suggestion, I have done a rough calculation and if we were to run a thick cable around the circumference of Venus and pass an electric current through this cable then the amount of current needed to create a global magnetic field around the planet, of roughly the same strength as the Earth’s magnetic field (which is of the order of 50 000 nano Tesla) is around 25 billion amps.

      As you will know from your high school science the amount of heat dissipated when current flows though a wire is the square of the current multiplied by the resistance. If we passed an electric current of 25 billion amps through a thick copper cable 20 cm in diameter we would dissipate 300 trillion Watts of heat per metre of cable!!
      Instead of having a single cable we had 10,000 cables in parallel, then we would only need a current of a 2.5 millon amps in each cable, since the magnetic fields caused by the current flowing in each of the individual cables would add up. The amount of heat dissipated would still be a massive 3 million Watts per metre of cable. This would cause the structure to overheat and be destroyed within a fraction of second of the current being switched on.
      What these calculations show is that, if we are to give Venus an artificial magnetic field in this way, then the cables would have to be superconducting (where the resistance is zero) to prevent such large losses due to the massive currents needed, making such a structure would obviously be an immense technological challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s exactly the same kind of calculations I ran back in college (30 years ago now!) If we are to settle on a world without a magnetic field, we’ve got to come up with some other kind of effective radiation shielding. Lacking that, we’re pretty much stuck where we are.

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  2. I enjoyed this post for many reasons. 1. How well it is written and cited. 2. The choice of the topic is great, very interesting. 3. Floating cities – orbiting colonies is something I am interested in. I hope in your next post you will be able to address the issue if these floating cities could have at all ‘open air’ decks – for people to experience normalcy (if that’s the word). Also, is the atmosphere there shifting? I mean if we have these ‘open air’ decks, do the layers of atmosphere drop or rise stirring the ‘breathable’ air. Thanks for writing!

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  3. Also, would you consider writing something briefly for my blog? I am writing about methane-based life forms (alternative biochemistries). For example, what kind of a creature could live on Titan. I think I can invite you as an author, so you will show up under your own name. However, if this is not a subject of interest or the project you would like to take, feel free to decline. I totally understand. Again, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. P.s. Now that I’ve read about your PhD in astronomy, I feel a tad silly for commenting on how well cited your works are and asking you to contribute to my blog 🙂 So sir, please apologize my irreverence 🙂 Looking forward to new posts.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I do like the idea of floating cities. Rather than a single vast city that would be vulnerable to catastrophic failure, I wonder if a series of interconnected “islands” would be the way to construct such a project?

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    1. I think that a series of interconnected “islands” would work

      However, with any floating habit there is the risk of it crashing down to the surface of the planet. I think that terraforming the planet is the safer (but very much longer term) option.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Has anyone here read Ben Bova’s “Venus”? The story shows the horrendous dangers and difficulties inherent in travelling into the planet’s atmosphere and to the surface, but also features a primitive silicon-based life-form.

    The surface of the planet must surely play some factor in possible colonisation. Although much older on average than earth’s crust, it seems that Venus has no tectonic plates as such and instead the crust suffers periodic catastrophic recycling when the planet’s internal heat rises to a critical level. Needless to say this might be a deterrent to building permanent structures at ground level.

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    1. Hi Nick,

      i haven’t actually read this book, but I will add it to my list of books to read 🙂

      I see the point you’re making when you note that the fact that Venus’s entire crust is periodically recycled could act as a permanent structures at ground level.

      However, I think that if humanity has advanced to such a stage that it could terraform Venus then our future descendants would be able to find a way to work around this.

      The Science Geek

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well if we do advance that much, we probably would move out of the solar system. If an existential catastrophic event to happen, it could make the solar system vulnerable. Also, if we need extra space in the solar system, probably we would build orbital stations around earth and cycler stations between earth and mars orbits. The later, if I recall, also help the issue of connecting with mars and allows using small escape velocity for space travels (that is if we still need this parameter and not using alternative mode of acceleration). I wonder what the Grand Strategic Plan for solar system would look like.

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  6. Nice write up! Will read Ms. Geek’s recommendation. The other issue is the sulfuric acid haze–brutal corrosion rate that would be the biggest potential source of failure…after human error.

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  7. Nice description of Venus. It helps make a little sense of something I saw on TV last night. A new show called “Lucifer” has the devil walking on Earth. He gave his full name as Lucifer Morningstar. I wondered why he would have a last name with reference to Venus, then you describe the surface of that planet as very hellish. Now I go “Ahh! I see!”

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  8. Perhaps it would be easier to Venusiform humans … study deep sea creatures and how they survive and flourish under such extreme conditions for example. We don’t actually breathe a lot of oxygen, just a mixture of gasses. Redefine what it means to be human going into space rather than redefine space. 🙂

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    1. One of the subplots of “The World Jones Made” by Philip K. Dick was about a group of lab grown humans that had been designed to survive on Venus, intended to be the first colonists. I haven’t read the Jack Vance novel that martenvandijk mentioned, I’ll have to check that one out.

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  9. Much as I applaud your idea and congratulate you on an interesting post, I feel there must be more worthy projects for our species to tackle in order to protect us from ELEs and from our own stupidity.

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    1. Thanks for your comment.
      I don’t think that terraforming Venus will happen for a very long time. This is due both the complexity of the challenges (it is well beyond our current technology and any likely technological advances in the next 100 years or so) and the immense cost. I can’t see it happening for many centuries. It is also something that would take hundred of years to complete from start to finish.

      However, I still believe that it will happen at some stage in the far future, by which time human society will be very different than it is today.

      The Science Geek

      Liked by 1 person

      1. James Lovelock has some interesting thoughts on the subject. See my review of ‘A Rough Ride to the Future’.

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      1. I see your point, but I am not sure how much they’d help. The conditions on Mars are very harsh compared to anywhere on Earth and are akin to those on the Moon. For example, the atmospheric pressure is so low that someone would be dead in seconds without a pressure suit.

        The Science Geek

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      2. Of course you are correct. I only meant that for a fraction of the cost we might begin to develop the kinds of hab tech and psych training we’d need to survive deathly cold and/or heat by developing ways to live in the harshest earth conditions. Nowhere close to Mars or Venus, but maybe for baby steps?

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  10. Irrespective of the improbable habitability, and the logical reasons for colonising Venus, or any other planet, as a race; we’re leaving ourselves with no other option. This is due to our ‘primarily’ destructive and greedy nature. The sad thing, though; would we learn to treat another home world any differently?

    Like

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