NASA's Parker Solar Probe has captured its first visible light photos of the surface of Venus from space. Venus, the third brightest object in the sky as viewed from Earth, is shrouded in thick clouds, making it difficult to capture images of the planet's surface. During two recent flybys, the Parker Solar Probe used its Wide-Field Imager, or WISPR, to image the entire nightside of Venus in wavelengths of the visible spectrum and into near-infrared wavelengths.

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The images, which have been combined into a video, show a faint glow from Venus' surface and show distinctive features like continental regions, plains and plateaus. You can also see a halo of oxygen in the atmosphere surrounding the planet.

'We're thrilled with the science insights Parker Solar Probe has provided thus far,' said Nicola Fox, division director for the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. 'Parker continues to outperform our expectations, and we are excited that these novel observations taken during our gravity assist maneuver can help advance Venus research in unexpected ways.'

The new images, and future images like them, will help scientists understand more about Venus, which is often referred to as Earth's twin. Scientists hope to learn more about surface geology, mineral composition, and Venus's evolution. Scientists also continue to try to understand why, given how similar Earth and Venus are, 'Venus became inhospitable and Earth became an oasis.'

'Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky, but until recently we have not had much information on what the surface looked like because our view of it is blocked by a thick atmosphere,' said Brian Wood, lead author on the new study and physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. 'Now, we finally are seeing the surface in visible wavelengths for the first time from space.'

WISPR first captured photos of Venus in July 2020 during Parker's third flyby. Parker used Venus to bend its orbit closer to the Sun. Speaking of which, in case you missed it, the Parker Solar Probe entered the Sun's atmosphere for the first time in December. At the time, scientists expected WISPR to capture images of the clouds surrounding Venus and measure their speed. However, WISPR saw through to the planetary surface. The interesting results led scientists to turn the cameras on for Parker's fourth flyby of Venus in February 2021.

The new visible light images have been combined with radar data from the Magellan mission to Venus. Magellan orbited Venus from 1990 to 1995.

Surface features seen in the WISPR images (left) match the ones seen in those from the Magellan mission (right).

Credits: NASA/APL/NRL (left), Magellan Team/JPL/USGS (right)

The results from the Parker Solar Probe have inspired other missions to pay closer attention to Venus, including the European Space Agency's BepiColombo mission. Future missions, including NASA's DAVINCI and VERITAS missions and the ESA's EnVision mission, will be heading to Venus around the end of this decade. These missions will image and sample Venus's atmosphere and remap the planetary surface at a higher resolution.

'By studying the surface and atmosphere of Venus, we hope the upcoming missions will help scientists understand the evolution of Venus and what was responsible for making Venus inhospitable today,' said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. 'While both DAVINCI and VERITAS will use primarily near-infrared imaging, Parker's results have shown the value of imaging a wide range of wavelengths.'