What’s on the Surface of Venus? A History of the Venera Program

With so much attention on Mars, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other Earth-sized planet nearby, worthy of exploration: Venus. And the Soviets worked really hard to tell us what it’s like down on the surface of Venus with their Venera program.

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Team: Fraser Cain – @fcain / [email protected]
Karla Thompson – @karlaii
Chad Weber – [email protected]

We’re always talking about Mars here on the Guide to Space. And with good reason. Mars is awesome, and there’s a fleet of spacecraft orbiting, probing and crawling around the surface of Mars.

The Red Planet is the focus of so much of our attention because it’s reasonably close and offers humanity a viable place for a second home. Well, not exactly viable, but with the right technology and techniques, we might be able to make a sustainable civilization there.

We have the surface of Mars mapped in great detail, and we know what it looks like from the surface.

But there’s another planet we need to keep in mind. Venus. It’s bigger, and closer than Mars. And sure, it’s a hellish deathscape that would kill you in moments if you ever set foot on it, but it’s still pretty interesting and mysterious to visit.

Would it surprise you to know that many spacecraft have actually made it down to the surface of Venus, and photographed the place from the ground? It was an amazing feat of Soviet engineering, and there are some new technologies in the works that might help us get back, and explore it longer.

Today, let’s talk about the Soviet Venera program. The first time humanity saw Venus from its surface.

Back in the 60s, in the height of the cold war, the Americans and the Soviets were racing to be the first to explore the Solar System. First satellite to orbit Earth (Soviets), first human to orbit Earth (Soviets), first flyby and landing on the Moon (Soviets), first flyby of Mars (Americans), first flyby of Venus (Americans), etc.

The Soviets set their sights on putting a lander down on the surface of Venus. But as we know, this planet has some unique challenges. Every place on the entire planet measures the same 462 degrees C (or 864 F).

Furthermore, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is 90 times greater than Earth. Being down at the bottom of that column of atmosphere is the same as being beneath a kilometer of ocean on Earth. Remember those submarine movies where they dive too deep and get crushed like a soda can?

Finally, it rains sulphuric acid. I mean, that’s really irritating.

Needless to say, figuring this out took the Soviets a few tries.

Their first attempts to even flyby Venus was Venera 1, on February 4, 1961. But it failed to even escape Earth orbit. This was followed by Venera 2, launched on November 12, 1965, but it went off course just after launch.

Venera 3 blasted off on November 16, 1965, and was intended to land on the surface of Venus. The Soviets lost communication with the spacecraft, but it’s believed it did actually crashland on Venus. So I guess that was the first successful “landing” on Venus?

Before I continue, I’d like to talk a little bit about landing on planets. As we’ve discussed in the past, landing on Mars is really really hard. The atmosphere is thick enough that spacecraft will burn up if you aim directly for the surface, but it’s not thick enough to let you use parachutes to gently land on the surface.

Landing on the surface of Venus on the other hand, is super easy. The atmosphere is so thick that you can use parachutes no problem. If you can get on target and deploy a parachute capable of handling the terrible environment, your soft landing is pretty much assured. Surviving down there is another story, but we’ll get to that.

Venera 4 came next, launched on June 12, 1967. The Soviet scientists had few clues about what the surface of Venus was actually like. They didn’t know the atmospheric pressure, guessing it might be a little higher pressure than Earth, or maybe it was hundreds of times our pressure. It was tested with high temperatures, and brutal deceleration. They thought they’d built this thing plenty tough.

Venera 4 arrived at Venus on October 18, 1967, and tried to survive a landing. Temperatures on its heat shield were clocked at 11,000 C, and it experienced 300 Gs of deceleration.

The initial temperature 52 km was a nice 33C, but then as it descended down towards the surface, temperatures increased to 262 C. And then, they lost contact with the probe, killed dead by the horrible temperature.