For a planet so close and so similar in size to Earth, Venus still holds so many mysteries. At one time, we believed that Venus would be Earth’s twin, not the caustic, dangerous world that it really is.
But learning the truth about Venus took some time, and a lot of gathering of information. One of the most successful programs to investigate Venus was the Venera Program, developed by the Soviet Union.
These days, we give much of our attention and effort to Mars, a planet that we might actually be able to visit, but back in the 60s through the 80s, the Soviet Union did everything they could to demystify Venus.
Origins of the Venera Project
Venera, or Venus in English, often seems to be an overlooked planet in our solar system. In truth, it held a lot of attraction to the Soviet Union during the space race, and they worked hard to get probes to our similarly-sized neighbor.
In the early 60s, public interest was on getting people into space and the moon. At the same time, though, the Soviets were determined to explore Venus.
The objectives of the Venera project were clear: study Venus’ atmosphere, surface, and geological features. In the process, it wouldn’t hurt to score some world firsts.
Early Venera Launches
The first missions of the Venera program were plagued with challenges. Venus’ surface would be revealed to be hot enough to melt lead, and to have an atmospheric pressure much higher than that of Earth, making the creation of crafts able to withstand these obstacles incredibly difficult.
Roscosmos wasn’t deterred, though. In the 60s and 70s, the Soviet Union had rockets capable of lifting much heavier spacecraft than the United States. They used this capability to great advantage with the Venera program, launching the 1,400 pound Venera 1 probe in 1961.
Venra 1 got off the ground, but not much farther, failing before it could leave Earth’s orbit.
To put into perspective how heavy Venera 1 was, Sputnik weighed only 184 pounds.
Venera 2 had more success after its launch in 1966, completing its intended flyby of Venus but overheating shortly before or after its pass before disappearing into space.
Coming closer than either of its predecessors, Venera 3 was meant to land on the surface of Venus before taking readings. Instead, it crash landed into the planet with enormous force. This crash unintentionally earned the Soviet Union another first–Venera 3 was the first craft to crash into another planet.
The first real success of the bunch was Venera 4. Venera 4 was able to slowly descend through the atmosphere of Venus, taking measurements as it did so. This probe lasted for more than 90 minutes, providing the Soviet Union with the most information by far compared to the other 3 crafts.
The Second Wave of Venera Crafts
Soviet scientists continued to persevere, launching more Venera crafts, each one more advanced than the last.
In 1969, following in the footsteps of Venera 4, Venera 5 and Venera 6 were also able to gently descend through the atmosphere. They were able to take even more detailed readings during their descent, revealing just how toxic the atmosphere of Venus really was.
Venera 7, a lander, did make it to the surface as planned, just faster than was hoped. It hit the surface of Venus at nearly 40 miles per hour, and the Soviets were sure that the mission had failed. But Venera 7 surprised everyone by transmitting data for a short while, revealing that the surface was a blistering 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Venera 7 was the first landing of a spacecraft on another planet, as well as the first to ever send a transmission from another planet.
Much the same, Venera 8 was a lander, and reached the surface. Venera 8 was able to measure the ambient light levels on Venus, so cameras on future Venera probes could be calibrated correctly.
Seeing Venus for the First Time
The following wave of Venera spacecrafts were the ones that make Venera one of the most successful and enduring space programs in history.
With Venera 9 through Venera 12, we were able to see Venus for the very first time. This era of the Venera probes was all about the camera, and the trial and error of getting said cameras to work on the violent Venusian surface.
Venera 9-12 were launched between 1975 and 1978, and not all of them were able to get the photographs needed. It wasn’t unusual for the cameras to fail, sometimes because of Venus itself and other times for mundane reasons like lens caps staying stuck on. The pictures that were recieved, though, were mesmerizing.
Venera 13 and Venera 14 were similar to Venera 9-12, but also equipped with audio devices that recorded the first sounds of Venus. They were launched towards the end of the program in 1981.
And lastly, there is Venera 15 and Venera 16, the last of the Venera probes to be launched as of October 2023. These advanced probes didn’t land on the surface, but instead used radar systems to map Venus from orbit.
The World Firsts of the Venera Program
The Soviet Union proved themselves trailblazers not just with Sputnik, but also with the Venera program, many times over. The world firsts accomplished by the Venera program are:
- First Successful Venus Flyby: Venera 1 (1961)
- First Data Transmission from Another Planet: Venera 3 (1965)
- First Soft Landing on Venus: Venera 7 (1970)
- First Detection of Venusian Atmosphere Composition: Venera 9 and Venera 10 (1975)
- First Color Photos from Venus Surface: Venera 13 and Venera 14 (1981)
- Longest Surviving Surface Mission: Venera 13 and Venera 14 (1981)
- First Mobile Robot on Another Planet: Venera 13 and Venera 14 (1981)
- First Images of Venus’ Surface: Venera 9 and Venera 13 (1975, 1981)
- First Direct Analysis of Venus’ Surface: Venera 13 and Venera 14 (1981)
The Future of the Venera Program
It’s true that the Venera program was a darling of the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean that Russia is done with Venus yet. Modern missions, like NASA’s Magellan would have been all but impossible without the discoveries, triumphs, and even failures of the Venera program.
Now Venera-D is on schedule, slated for launch in 2029, and said to be equipped with an advanced lander and orbiter that take advantage of the enormous amounts of progress we have made when it comes to space exploration.
The Venera program taught us massive amounts about the punishing world of Venus, but if everything goes to plan, it’s not done teaching us just yet. Because of the Venera program, Venus is no longer distant and untouchable, but tangible. If Venus is hiding more secrets, we’re well on the way to discovering them.
“The Venera Program | The Space Collective”
“Venera timeline: The Soviet Union’s Venus missions in pictures”