Earth’s Twin: Venus

Leaving aside the Moon and the Sun, Venus is the brightest object in the sky, and at times the closest. Further, Venus is the only planet that is comparable to Earth; its mass is about 81.5%, its size is about 95%, and its gravity is about 90.5% that of Earth. The orbit of Venus has only 1/3 of Earth’s eccentricity, and while Earth has an axial tilt of 23.5 degrees (which results in right now I am embedded in winter and many of the readers will be enjoying a pleasant summer, or maybe a heat wave) Venus has a tilt of only 2.6 degrees. That means that Venus has a more or less uniform temperature and no seasons. At first sight, that would make it an attractive target for space probes, but while NASA has sent eleven orbiters and eight landers to Mars, it has only sent two orbiters to Venus. Why the lack? Not for lack of interest since from 1990 NASA has considered nearly thirty proposals, but it approved none. The dead hand of the committee strikes again. The reason is that Venus, up close, is strangely unattractive.

The first problem is atmospheric pressure, which is about 90 bar over most of the planet, and it has an average surface temperature of about 460 degrees C but this can vary by +160 degrees C. The second problem is the nature of the atmosphere. Most of it is carbon dioxide. Venus also has about four times the amount of nitrogen than Earth has, and all of that is relatively harmless. What is less harmless is the atmosphere has clouds of sulphuric acid, together with hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride. Hydrogen fluoride is particularly nasty, because it reacts with glass, and while the sulphuric acid will attack all the basic electronics, etc, the hydrogen fluoride will attack lenses. Very shortly, photography, or seeing where a rover is going, will no longer be possible. And, of course, if it can survive, the heat soon kills it. The first lander to return data was Venera 7, a 1970 Soviet lander that survived for 23 minutes. In 1975, Venera 9 sent back the first pictures from the surface, but it too did not last very long. Funding committees do not encourage very expensive rovers with a very short life.

This may change. NASA is designing a “station” that should last at least sixty days, and operate at the ambient temperature. The electronics would be made of silicon carbide, a substance that conducts electricity and melts somewhere above 2,800 degrees C. No danger of that melting, although all the metals in the craft would have to be resistant to the ambient heat and the corrosion. Titanium would probably manage reasonably well. So maybe we shall get to know more about the planet.

There have apparently been proposals to “colonise” Venus through “settlements” floating above the cloud levels, i.e.presumably some ship-like structure supported by gigantic balloons. Personally, I feel this is unreal. The total weight must displace an equal weight of gas, and the idea is to get above the clouds. Up there, the gas is nowhere near as dense (the pressure is only about half that 90 bar at the top of the highest mountain) and to go higher the pressure really drops away. So to support sufficient mass you would need very large balloons, made of what? Any fabric or rubber would be broken down by the solar UV at that height. Metals would corrode. And what would the gas be? The obvious ones would be hydrogen and helium (no danger of fire because there is no air) but these gases leak like crazy. You may think you can hold it, but for centuries? Then there is another minor problem: at the top of the atmosphere winds can reach several hundred kilometres per hour.

So what is “wrong” with Venus, from our point of view? There are two things. The first is the very slow rotation, which happens to be retrograde. The direction is not so much a problem, but the slowness is. However, the main one is, no significant water. If Venus had the amount of water Earth has, it would have fixed all that carbon dioxide as limestone or dolomite, in which case the atmospheric pressure would be about 3 times our atmosphere (because it has four times the amount of nitrogen). If we wanted to have breathable air, we would have to add another atmosphere of oxygen.

So in theory we could terraform Venus. At the expense of much energy what we would have to do is bring in a number of Kuiper Belt objects, or maybe cometary material from around Jupiter would be better because they contain much less additional nitrogen and carbon monoxide, and make them hit Venus, preferably on the side in a way that the angular momentum of the incoming object was added to the current Venusian rotation, in other words, spin it up. Give it water, and chemistry would do the rest, although it would probably also be preferable to cool it by shading it from the sun at least to some extent. Yes, the temperatures would still be high, but as long as it can cool to 300 degrees C, the pressure will ensure there is some liquid, and the fixing of the gas will start, and initiate positive feedback

Suppose we could give Venus as much water as Earth, then the planet would be more like a water world. It is an interesting question whether Venus has any felsic/granitic material. This is the stuff that makes continents. The great bulk of the material on any rocky planet is basaltic, which in turn is because the oxides of silicon, magnesium and iron are the most commonly available rock-forming materials. Aluminium, as an element, is over an order of magnitude less common than silicon, which it replaces in aluminosilicates. Being less dense than basalt, granite floats on the basalt, provided it can separate itself from the basalt. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I propose that the separation essentially has to take place prior to and during planetary formation. Venus does have two minicontinents: Ishtar and Aphrodite Terrae.

The actual differentiation of the planet, when the granite moves from the deep and comes out on the surface occurs slowly (the small amounts of plagioclase on Mars apparently took about two billion years.) and the rate probably depends on the amount actually accreted. The evidence is that on Earth very large amounts erupted in massive pulses. In the absence of such granite, a large planet will be rather flat, apart from some volcanic peaks.

There would still be a problem in that Venus has no plate tectonics. They are needed to provide the recycling of carbon dioxide, as eventually if the lot were fixed, any life would presumably die. We don’t know what starts plate tectonics. One possibility is the presence of granitic continents, another is the forces arising from rotational motion.  It is just possible they could start if there were more rotational motion, but we don’t know. All in all, not an attractive planet in detail, so maybe we should look after our own better.

Rocky Planet Formation

In the previous posts I have argued that the evidence strongly supports the concept that the sun eliminated its accretion disk within about 1 My after the star formed. During this 1 My, the disk would be very much cooler than while the sun was accreting, and the temperatures were probably not much different from those now at any given distance from the star in the rocky planet zone. Gas was still falling into the star, but at least ten thousand times slower. We also know (see previous posts) that small solid objects such as CAIs and iron bearing meteorites are much older than the planets and asteroids. If the heavier isotope distributions of xenon and krypton are caused by the hydrodynamic loss to space, which is the most obvious reason, then Earth had to have formed before the disk cleanout, which means Earth was more or less formed within about 1 My after the formation of the sun.

The basic problem for forming rocky planets is how does the rocky material stick together? If you are on the beach, you may note that sand does not turn into a solid mass. A further problem is the collisions of large objects involve huge energies. Glancing collisions lead to significant erosion of both objects, and even direct hits lead to local pulverization and intense heat, together with a shock wave going through the bodies. When the shock wave returns, the pulverized material is sent into space. Basically craters are formed, and a crater is a hole. Adding holes does not build up mass. Finally, if the two are large enough and about equal sized, they each tend to shatter as a consequence of the shock waves. This is why I believe the Monarchic growth makes more sense, where what collides with the major body is much smaller. Once the forming object is big enough, it accretes all small objects it collides with, due to gravity, but the problem is, how do small bodies stick together?

The mechanism I developed goes like this. While the star is accreting, we get very high temperatures and anything over 1000 degrees will lead to silicates softening and becoming sticky. This generates pebbles, stones and boulders that get increasingly big as we get closer to the star, because more of the silicates get more like liquids. At 1550 degrees C, iron melts, and the iron liquids coalesce. That is where the iron meteorites come from. By about 1750 – 1800 degrees silicates get quite soft, and it may be that Mercury formed by a whole lot of “liquids” forming a sticky mass. Behind that would be a distribution of ever decreasingly sized silicate masses, with iron cores where temperatures got over 1550. This would be the origin of the cores for Earth, Venus and Mercury. Mars has no significant iron core because the iron there was still in the very small particulate size.

The standard theory says the cores separated out with heavier liquids sinking, but what most people do not realize is that the core of the Earth does not comprise liquid silicates, at least not the mobile sort. You have no doubt heard that heat rises by convection at hot spots, but it is not a sort of kettle down there. The rate of movement has been estimated at 1 mm per year, which would mean the silicates would rise 1000 km every billion years. We are still well short of one complete turnover. Further an experiment where two different silicates were heated to 2000 degrees C under pressure of 26 Gpa showed that the silicates would only diffuse contents a few meters over the life of the Earth. They may be “liquid” but the perovskite silicates are so viscous nothing moves far in them. So how did the core form so quickly? In my opinion, the reason is the iron has already separated from the silicates, and the collision of a whole lot of small spherical objects do not pack well; there will be channels, and molten iron that already exists in larger masses will flow down them. Less-viscous aluminosilicates will flow up and form the continents.

The next part unfortunately involves some physical chemistry, and there is no way around it. I am going to argue that the silicates that formed the boulders separated into phases. An example is oil and water. Molecules tend to have an energy of association, that is all the water molecules have an energy that tends to hold them all together as a liquid as opposed to a gas, and that tends to keep phases separate because one such energy between like molecules is invariably stronger than the energy between different ones. There is also something called entropy, which favours things being mixed. Now the heat of association of polymers is proportional to the number of mers, while the entropy is (to a first approximation) proportional to the number of molecules. Accordingly, the longer the polymers, the less likely they are to blend, and the more likely to phase separate. That is one of the reasons that recycling plastics is such a problem: you cannot blend them because if the polymers are long, they tend to separate in processing, and your objects have “faults” running through them.

The reason this is important, from my point of view, is that at about 1300 degrees C, calcium silicate tends to phase separate from the rest, and about 1500 degrees C, a number of calcium aluminosilicates start to phase separate. These are good hydraulic cements, and my argument is that after cool down, collisions between boulders makes dust, and the cements are particularly brittle. Then if significant boulders come together gently, e.g. as in the postulated “rubble piles”, the cement dust works it way through them, and water vapour from the disk will set the cement. This works up to about 500 degrees C, but there are catches. Once it gets significantly over 300 degrees C, less water is absorbed, and the harder it is to set it. Calcium silicate only absorbs one molecule of water, but some aluminosilicates can absorb up to twenty molecules per mer. This lets us see why the rocky planets look like they do. Mars is smaller because only the calcium silicate cement can form at that distance, and because iron never melted it does not have an iron core. It has less water because calcium silicate can only set one molecule of water per cement molecule, and it does not have easily separable aluminosilicates so it has very little felsic material. Earth is near the optimum position. It is where the iron core material starts, and because it is further from the sun than the inner planets, there is more iron to sweep up. The separated aluminosilicates rise to the surface and form the felsic continents we walk on, and provided more water when setting the cement. Venus formed where it was a little hot, so it was a slow starter, but once going, it will have had bigger boulders to grow with. It has plenty of iron core, but less felsic material, and it started with less water than Earth. This is conditional on the Earth largely forming before the disk gases were ejected. If we accept that, we have a platform for why Earth has life, but of course that is for later.