Solar System's Biggest Gravity Wave Spotted on Venus

Venus' wave

Akatsuki, the Japanese probe just detected a unusual gravity wave in the atmosphere for Venus. This is hard to reconcile with what we know about Venus' thick upper atmosphere, in which clouds streak by at 100 metres per second (m/s). Of particular interest is a high area known as Aphrodite Terra, which is up to more than 3 miles high and the size of Africa near the equator. Venus rotates very slowly on its axis, completing just one rotation every 243 Earth days - longer than it takes the planet to go around the sun.

You could outrun sunrise and sunset on Venus if, of course, you could find a way to avoid getting simultaneously fried by the 864° Fahrenheit (462° Celsius) surface temperatures and crushed under an atmospheric pressure more than 90 times that of Earth's at sea level. Several gravity waves had been observed before in the atmosphere of Venus.

"[Venus Express] started to see some hints that the atmospheric wind pattern was slightly different over some of these highlands", Dr. Wilson says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

It is thought the regions formed from a gravity wave moving through the atmosphere, like ripples in a pond.

If, for example, it is a gravity wave on Venus, then the experts suspect that it happened when the zooming wind was pushed up into the sky after it hit mountain ranges, which is then countered by the gravity which is trying to push it down again.

'Though the mechanism is far different from that of the bows in the Venus atmosphere, the stationary thermal structure reminds me of stationary waves on a surface of a shallow river below which an invisible big stone on the bottom prevents smooth flow'.

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It has been unclear whether gravity waves generated by mountainous topography can travel upwards to the Venusian cloud tops.

'When a gravity wave propagates in an atmosphere, air parcels vertically oscillate by a balance of buoyancy and gravity forces, ' Taguchi said.

Taguchi and colleagues, writing in this week's Nature Geoscience, said they believe Venus' mountains caused a gravity wave to form in the lower atmosphere. According to scientists, the wave was observed for a few days, before it suddenly disappeared.

But exactly why the bow stayed still when the rest of Venus' atmosphere moves so quickly continues to puzzle scientists. Although the super-rotation is not fully understood, Pioneer Venus showed that the high speed reduces through the lower atmosphere, eventually rotating with the planet at the surface.

And, Wilson adds, as Venus is nearly the exact same size as Earth and quite a nearby neighbor, studying it could also tell us more about how our own planet's atmospheric system works.

Several spacecraft have also studied the planet from orbit, including Akatsuki, Venus Express and Nasa's Magellan mission.

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