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Venus’ Electric Field is a “Monster Lurking in the Sky”

Back in 2014, a bunch of scientists posited that our closest planetary neighbor, Venus, might be a viable option for human habitation—namely in the form of solar-powered airship cloud cities (they just watched Empire). In light of some new information, we may want to alter that deal and forget that we ever concocted such a plan.

We’ve long known that Venus’ surface is tumultuous. Hot enough to melt lead. Sulfuric acid rainstorms. It’s not a friendly place—hence living above the clouds. According to Gizmodo, scientists have just discovered electric winds that probably mean it’s not very friendly up there, either.

Glyn Collinson, the lead author on a study published in Geophysical Research Letters, calls Venus’ electric field a “monster lurking in the sky.” Scientists have long suspected that all planets with atmospheres have electric fields (layers of charged particles in the ionosphere that generate low levels of electricity), but until recently they’ve been unable to detect it on any planet—even our own.

Because of its undetectable charge, Earth is thought to have an electric field of less than two volts. Venus’ is five times stronger. The data was collected in a mission that measured the planet’s electric field for the very first time. Check out the NASA graphic below:


“We don’t really know why Venus’ field is so much stronger, but it’s clearly possible for a planet with Earth’s mass and forming at a similar distance to have an enormous electric field,” Collinson said. “If we want to find habitable planets around other stars, this is a new requirement.”

Indeed, the electric field is so strong that it generates a “wind” that acts more like solar wind than gusts of air. It effectively strips away the atmosphere, probably explaining why Venus has such a small fraction of water relative to earth (because of the strong wind, water molecules’ oxygen atoms reach escape velocities and leave the hydrogen behind).

As Collinson notes, this news is important in our quest to find other habitable planets; one more issue to factor into the equation when we think about leaving our planet, lest we get torn apart by an electric monster in the sky.

IMAGE: tonynetone/NASA

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