The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians called Venus Dil-bat or Dil-i-pat; in Akkadia it was the special star of the mother-god Ishtar; and in Chinese it is Jīn-xīng (金星), the planet of the metal element. In India, Venus is called Shukra Graha (the planet Shukra) which is named after a powerful saint Shukra. The word 'Shukra' is also associated with semen, or generation.
Because its orbit takes it between the Earth and the Sun, Venus as seen from Earth exhibits visible phases in much the same manner as the Earth's Moon. Galileo Galilei was the first person to observe the phases of Venus in December 1610, an observation which supported Copernicus's then contentious heliocentric description of the solar system. He also noted changes in the size of Venus's visible diameter when it was in different phases, suggesting that it was farther from Earth when it was full and nearer when it was a crescent. This observation strongly supported the heliocentric model. Venus (and also Mercury) is not visible from Earth when it is full, since at that time it is at superior conjunction, rising and setting concomitantly with the Sun and hence lost in the Sun's glare.
Venus is brightest when approximately 25% of its disk is illuminated; this typically occurs 37 days both before (in the evening sky) and after (in the morning sky), its inferior conjunction. Its greatest elongations occur approximately 70 days before and after inferior conjunction, at which time it is half full; between these two intervals Venus is actually visible in broad daylight, if the observer knows specifically where to look for it. The planet's period of retrograde motion is 20 days on either side of the inferior conjunction. In fact, through a telescope Venus at greatest elongation appears less than half full due to Schröter's effect first noticed in 1793 and shown in 1996 as due to its thick atmosphere.
On rare occasions, Venus can actually be seen in both the morning (before sunrise) and evening (after sunset) on the same day. This scenario arises when Venus is at its maximum separation from the ecliptic and concomitantly at inferior conjunction; then one hemisphere (Northern or Southern) will be able to see it at both times. This opportunity presented itself most recently for Northern Hemisphere observers within a few days on either side of March 29, 2001, and for those in the Southern Hemisphere, on and around August 19, 1999. These respective events repeat themselves every eight years pursuant to the planet's synodic cycle.
Transits of Venus, when the planet crosses directly between the Earth and the Sun's visible disc, are rare astronomical events. The first time such a transit was observed was on December 4, 1639 by Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree. A transit in 1761 observed by Mikhail Lomonosov provided the first evidence that Venus had an atmosphere, and the 19th-century observations of parallax during its transits allowed the distance between the Earth and Sun to be accurately calculated for the first time. Transits can only occur either in early June or early December, these being the points at which Venus crosses the ecliptic (the orbital plane of the Earth), and occur in pairs at eight-year intervals, with each such pair more than a century apart. The previous pair of transits of Venus occurred in 1874 and 1882, and the current pair is in 2004 and 2012.
In the 19th century, many observers stated that Venus had a period of rotation of roughly 24 hours. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli was the first to predict a significantly slower rotation, proposing that Venus was tidally locked with the Sun (as he had also proposed for Mercury). While not actually true for either body, this was still a reasonably accurate estimate. The near-resonance between its rotation and its closest approach to Earth helped to create this impression, as Venus always seemed to be facing the same direction when it was in the best location for observations to be made. The rotation rate of Venus was first measured during the 1961 conjunction, observed by radar from a 26 m antenna at Goldstone, California, the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory in the UK, and the Soviet deep space facility in Eupatoria, Crimea. Accuracy was refined at each subsequent conjunction, primarily from measurements made from Goldstone and Eupatoria. The fact that rotation was retrograde was not confirmed until 1964.
Before radio observations in the 1960s, many believed that Venus contained a lush, Earth-like environment. This was due to the planet's size and orbital radius, which suggested a fairly Earthlike situation as well as to the thick layer of clouds which prevented the surface from being seen. Among the speculations on Venus were that it had a junglelike environment or that it had oceans of either petroleum or carbonated water. However, microwave observations in 1956, by C. Mayer et al, indicated a high-temperature source (600 K). Strangely, millimetre-band observations made by A. D. Kuzmin indicated much lower temperatures. Two competing theories explained the unusual radio spectrum, one suggesting the high temperatures originated in the ionosphere, and another suggesting a hot planetary surface.
Interest in the geological characteristics of Venus was stimulated by the refinement of imaging techniques between 1970 and 1985. Early radar observations suggested merely that the surface of Venus was more compacted than the dusty surface of the Moon. The first radar images taken from the Earth showed very bright (radar-reflective) highlands christened Alpha Regio, Beta Regio, and Maxwell Montes; improvements in radar techniques later achieved an image resolution of 1–2 kilometres.
There have been numerous unmanned missions to Venus. Ten Russian probes have included a soft landing on the surface, with up to 110 minutes of communication from the surface, all without return. Launch windows occur every 19 months, and from 1962 to 1985, every window was utilized to launch reconnaissance probes.
On February 12, 1961, the Soviet spacecraft Venera 1 was the first probe launched to another planet. An overheated orientation sensor caused it to malfunction, but Venera-1 was first to combine all the necessary features of an interplanetary spacecraft: solar panels, parabolic telemetry antenna, 3-axis stabilization, course-correction engine, and the first launch from parking orbit.
The first successful Venus probe was the American Mariner 2 spacecraft, which flew past Venus in 1962. A modified Ranger Moon probe, it established that Venus has practically no intrinsic magnetic field and measured the planet's thermal microwave emissions.
The descent capsule of Venera 4 entered the atmosphere of Venus on October 18, 1967. The first probe to return direct measurements from another planet, the capsule measured temperature, pressure, density and performed 11 automatic chemical experiments to analyze the atmosphere. It showed 95% carbon dioxide, and in combination with radio occultation data from the Mariner 5 probe, it showed that surface pressures were far greater than expected (75 to 100 atmospheres).
These results were verified and refined by the Venera 5 and Venera 6 missions on May 16 and 17 of 1969. But thus far, none of these missions had reached the surface while still transmitting. Venera 4's battery ran out while still slowly floating through the massive atmosphere, and Venera 5 and 6 were crushed by high pressure 18 km (60,000 ft) above the surface.
The first successful landing on Venus was by Venera 7 on December 15, 1970. It relayed surface temperatures of 455 °C to 475 °C (855 °F to 885 °F). Venera 8 landed on July 22, 1972. In addition to pressure and temperature profiles, a photometer showed that the clouds of Venus formed a layer, ending over 22 miles above the surface. A gamma ray spectrometer analyzed the chemical composition of the crust.
The 660 kg (1,455 lb) descent vehicle separated from Venera 9 and landed, taking the first pictures of the surface and analyzing the crust with a gamma ray spectrometer and a densitometer. During descent, pressure, temperature and photometric measurements were made, as well as backscattering and multi-angle scattering (nephelometer) measurements of cloud density. It was discovered that the clouds of Venus are formed in three distinct layers. On October 25, Venera 10 arrived and carried out a similar program of study.
In 1981, the Soviet Venera 13 sent the first colour image of Venus's surface and analysed the X-ray fluorescence of an excavated soil sample. The probe operated for a record 127 minutes on the planet's hostile surface. Also in 1981, the Venera 14 lander detected possible seismic activity in the planet's crust.
On October 10 and October 11, 1983, Venera 15 and Venera 16 entered polar orbits around Venus. The images had a 1–2 kilometre (0.6–1.2 mile) resolution, comparable to those obtained by the best Earth radars. Venera 15 analyzed and mapped the upper atmosphere with an infrared Fourier spectrometer. From November 11 to July 10, both satellites mapped the northern third of the planet with synthetic aperture radar. These results provided the first detailed understanding of the surface geology of Venus, including the discovery of unusual massive shield volcanoes such as coronae and arachnoids. Venus had no evidence of plate tectonics, unless the northern third of the planet happened to be a single plate. The altimetry data obtained by the Venera missions had a resolution four times better than Pioneer's. In 1985, during the euphoria of Halley's comet, the Soviet Union launched two Vega probes to Venus. Vega 1 and 2 each sent an instrumented helium balloon to a height of 50 kilometres (31 mi) above the surface, allowing scientists to study the dynamics of the most active part of Venus's atmosphere.
The Soviet Vega 1 and Vega 2 probes encountered Venus on June 11 and June 15 of 1985. Landing vehicles carried experiments focusing on cloud aerosol composition and structure. Each carried an ultraviolet absorption spectrometer, aerosol particle-size analyzers, and devices for collecting aerosol material and analyzing it with a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The upper two layers of the clouds were found to be sulfuric acid droplets, but the lower layer is probably composed of phosphoric acid solution. The crust of Venus was analyzed with the soil drill experiment and a gamma ray spectrometer. As the landers carried no cameras on board, no images were returned from the surface.
The Vega missions also deployed balloon-borne aerostat probes that floated at about 53 km altitude respectively for 46 and 60 hours, traveling about 1/3 of the way around the planet. These measured wind speed, temperature, pressure and cloud density. More turbulence and convection activity than expected was discovered, including occasional plunges of 1 to 3 km in downdrafts. The Vega spacecraft continued to rendezvous with Halley's Comet nine months later, bringing an additional 14 instruments and cameras for that mission.
To overcome the severely inhospitable surface conditions, a team led by Geoffrey Landis of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio has proposed a Venus Rover mission that includes a tough surface rover in communication with a solar-powered aircraft. The aircraft would carry the mission's sensitive electronics in the relatively mild temperatures of Venus' upper atmosphere. Another more recent rover design proposal by Landis uses a Stirling cooler powered by a nuclear power source to keep an electronics package at a relatively comfortable 200°C.
Landis also makes a case for Venus as a target for human colonization. At 50 km above the surface, the temperature range is 0-50°C, the air pressure drops to 1 atmosphere, the gravity is 0.9 that of Earth, and the resources for life are plentiful.