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How to colonize Venus, and why it's a better plan than Mars

Venus: Hot, toxic, hellish... home?

How to colonize Venus, and why it's a better plan than Mars
A digital elevation map of Maat Mons, a five-mile-high volcano surrounded by lava flows on the surface of Venus. Image: NASA.
  • When we think of colonizing space, our first thoughts are to the Moon and Mars.
  • Venus, despite being incredibly inhospitable on the surface, might actually be a better target for colonization.
  • Suspending blimps in the Venusian clouds is not only feasible, but offers some of the most Earth-like conditions in the solar system.

Venus, the second planet from our sun, is a downright terrifying place. Its atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide, with the exception of the clouds that rain sulfuric acid. Its surface is a foggy, yellow desert dotted by volcanoes many times larger than those found on Earth. Its mean surface temperature reaches a blistering 860 degrees Fahrenheit. But despite these inhospitable conditions, Venus may be one of the best spots for humans to settle in our solar system.

Settling on a hellish planet

An artist's rendering of the surface of Venus.


While the two may not seem alike at first blush, Venus is quite similar to Earth compared to other planets in our solar system. So much so, the Morning Star is sometimes called Earth's "sister planet". Its gravity is 90% as strong as Earth's, compared to Mars' ~38%, meaning that our muscles won't atrophy, and our bones won't decalcify as they do in low-gravity environments. It's roughly the same size as Earth, and it's the closest planet in our solar neighborhood.

This makes Venus a tempting target for future colonization, but what about all of those deadly characteristics mentioned above? It's hard to imagine life in an atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, with no water, and at incredible heat. Not to mention that if you were to stand on its surface, the weight of the Venusian atmosphere would be the same as diving 3,000 feet underwater (which you don't want to try). There's no arguing that the surface of Venus is brutal. That's why we wouldn't live on Venus's surface.

Instead, a hypothetical Venusian colony would be suspended by blimps floating 31 miles above the surface. This might seem farfetched, but it isn't entirely science fiction. While there are plenty of challenges associated with living above the surface of Venus, in many ways, establishing a colony in the clouds of Venus would be easier than doing so on the surface of Mars. Here's why.

Paradise in the clouds

In Venus's upper atmosphere, the pressure would be about 1,000 hectopascals (hPa), which is extremely close to Earth's 1013 hPa at sea level. Not only will humans be able to tolerate this exceedingly well, but since the pressure outside a blimp would be close to that inside the blimp, any punctures would result in a repairable leak rather than a catastrophic explosion. As an analogy, you can consider this like opening the door to an airplane on the runway compared to doing so during a flight. Above the surface's crushing pressure, the temperature would be much more manageable, too, ranging from 32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

These qualities mean that a human could happily work outside the habitat, so long as they had air to breathe and protection from the clouds of sulfuric acid. Acid rain might seem like a problem, but there are plenty of easily constructed materials resistant to such acid, like polytetrafluorine—also known as Teflon.

What about water? Venus barely has any, unfortunately. But those deadly clouds made of sulfuric acid also present an opportunity. Sulfuric acid is made of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen molecules. Through electrolysis, these molecules can be separated and recombined to form water, leaving only sulfur as a waste product. As for oxygen, Venus has an abundance of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which can be used to grow plants for producing breathable air and food.

Venus' atmosphere would also provide shielding from cosmic radiation, which can both scramble human brains over time and irradiate food, soil, and pretty much everything else. Mars, unfortunately, has a very thin atmosphere, which would not provide this benefit.

Full-scale colonization

JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin

It's nice to know that exploring Venus through manned missions is possible, but our long-term goal of becoming an interplanetary species and establishing a colony must be more challenging. Generating the lift for entire cities to float in the Venusian clouds seems like it would be a monumental feat of engineering. To be sure, it would be hard, but not quite as hard as one would think.

Geoffrey Landis, a NASA scientist and science-fiction author who studied the feasibility of human colonies on Venus, explained that floating a city 31 miles above the planet's surface would be relatively straightforward. Because Venus' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen—the regular air you're breathing now—could easily generate the necessary lift. "A one-kilometer diameter spherical [balloon] will lift 700,000 tons—two Empire State Buildings. A two-kilometer diameter [balloon] would lift six million tons," writes Landis.

What's more, Landis says, "Venus has plenty of room. A billion habitats, each one with a population of hundreds of thousands of humans, could be placed [to] float in the Venus atmosphere."

Of course, none of this will be happening any time soon. While this colony would work in theory, we still need to learn more about Venus. Mars takes up much of the limelight in our interplanetary exploration, while most missions to Venus were made decades ago by Soviet probes. NASA does have a plan for a 30-day crewed mission to Venus called the High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), but this project is sadly inactive. As we gear up to establish colonies on the moon and on Mars, however, hopefully we keep our sister planet in mind.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

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A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

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