When Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft closed in on Venus seven years ago, its main engine failed and with no way of slowing down, the spacecraft overshot the planet and barreled into orbit around the Sun.
The mission, meant to study the dynamics of the planet’s perpetual cloud cover and hellishly hot surface, was feared lost. But failed engine aside, the spacecraft was in good working order. So five years later, when its path neared Venus, engineers used a separate set of thrusters to slow Akatsuki into an elliptical orbit around the planet.
The spacecraft is now snapping photos in ultraviolet and infrared light, revealing unprecedented details of the dynamic weather patterns on Venus. The Japanese space agency JAXA places the pictures online for public viewing, and French illustrator Damia Bouic recently processed some of the best into the dramatic photographs you see here and on her blog.
Photographed in ultraviolet light and rendered in false color, this view reveals the complexities of the clouds that coat the planet. The ocher hues correspond to sulfur dioxide.
The planet’s night side glows as seen by the spacecraft’s heat-sensitive infrared camera.
Although the planet itself takes 243 days to make one full rotation, the atmosphere whips around the planet once every four days, in a mysterious process called super-rotation. Winds on Venus are known to blow at up to 250 miles per hour (400kph).
Venus’ south polar area, seen in ultraviolet light. The planet's atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
Japan's Akatsuki satellite, seen here approaching Venus in an illustration. The probe began its scientific mission monitoring Venus' atmosphere after a five-year delay in late 2015 and was expected to remain operational for two years.
Included on the spacecraft are instruments tuned to peer beneath the planet's cloud cover in wavelengths ranging from the infrared to the ultraviolet. Akatsuki has already spotted a massive bow wave in the planet's atmosphere, and continues to return observations about atmospheric composition and behavior. Researchers are hoping to use one camera to catch the first pictures of lightning in the planet's thick clouds.
Venusian atmospheric dynamics, in ultraviolet light, show intricate meteorological patterns. Observations by Akatsuki found a high speed equatorial current in the lower to middle cloud layer, though what drives it remains unexplained.
The night side of Venus shows patterns of heat where lighter shades mean higher temperatures.
The clouds are thicker in some places and that affects the amount of radiation streaming into space. It's like Venus is a light bulb and clouds a layer of paint on it.
The dark crescent at top is actually the overexposed day side of the planet. Surface temperatures average 864 degrees Fahrenheit both day and night due to the greenhouse effect caused by the thick atmosphere.
Temperate and tropical cloud patterns are revealed on the daylight side as seen in ultraviolet light.