The Venus Smiley Emoji

Images from the Japanese satellite Akatsuki show a spectacular arc-shaped cloud feature on Venus reminiscent of a giant (6000-mile long) sideways smiley face. Interestingly, this "smiley emoji" feature was stable for a full four days, so what was it?

Let us start by reviewing what we know about Venus’ atmosphere. The inner atmosphere extends for about 12 miles above the surface and is extremely thick. If you were to try to walk through it, assuming you had a sturdy astronaut suit capable of sustaining acid rain, then you would face an atmospheric density equivalent to about one-sixth that of water. On the surface the winds would be fair, clocking in at 2-3 miles per hour. The winds would then rise up to a hurricane levels of about 200 miles per hour or even faster at higher altitudes. The winds move so fast that they typically circumnavigate the planet once every 4 days (compared to the more sluggish rotation period of Venus of 243 days). All this sets the stage for some very interesting meteorology on Venus.

It turns out that the smiley face feature that was seen informs us of significant geological features on the Venetian surface which disturb the atmospheric patterns above it. The effect that caused the gigantic smiley face is called a “gravity wave.” Note this not to be mistaken for a “gravitational wave” which is a fundamental ringing of the fabric of spacetime.

The gravity wave is more mundane effect that takes place when the surface winds hit in this case the massive Venetian mountain range Aphrodite Terra just below the “emoji” feature. As a result the winds are driven straight upward until they strike the speedy horizontally-driven winds. The combination creates a relatively stable feature that is the gravity wave.

This discovery, written up in this week’s Science section of the New York Times, helps us to see indirectly the features on the surface of our “twin” planet.

Dr. Brenda Frye

About Dr. Brenda Frye

Brenda L. Frye is an observational cosmologist at the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. She earned her Ph. D. in Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, assisted by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Her thesis work involved measuring the concentration of the total mass of visible plus dark matter in the fields of massive galaxy clusters, a program requiring the use of some of the largest telescopes in the world.

Moving a mile from her Ph. D. institution, she assumed a postdoctoral position with the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the direction of Professor Saul Permutter.

She then treked across the country to take a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Princeton Council on Sciences and Technology Fellowship both at Princeton University.

Moving further east, she became a Lecturer in Physics at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, where a number of European collaborations were formed.

From there she crossed back across the pond to the west coast of the U. S. to become a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco.

Her travels have now landed her at her Alma Mater in Tucson, where she teaches and does research. The aims of her research continue to be to use gravitational telescopes in space as 'lenses' to study the properties of dark matter and those of distant galaxies back to when the universe was <900 million years old.

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