First Photo From Another Planet

On this day in 1975, the USSR’s Venera 9 spacecraft descended through the thick Venusian atmosphere, released its parachute, and successfully landed on the surface of Venus. Two months later, it would send to Earth the first images ever seen of a surface of another planet. Venera 9 was also the first spacecraft to orbit Venus.

Observation of Venus goes all the way back to the ancients who called it the “morning star” and the “evening star.” It is the brightest star in the sky and the second planet from the sun—its orbit a distance of about 108 million kilometres. Its ancient designation as both the morning star and the evening star is the result of its faster orbiting speed of the sun than Earth’s. Depending on each planets’ alignment, Venus is either most visible before sunrise (the morning star) or after sunset (the evening star).

The greatest studies of Venus, prior to 20th century space exploration, were conducted by some of the great historical luminaries of science, including the 11th century Persian astronomer Avicenna, who determined that the planet was closer to the sun than Earth; Galileo who discovered that Venus showed phases like that of the moon; and others like Lomonosov who contributed to studies of the planet’s atmosphere.

Venus became a highly targeted subject in the space race of the 1960s. The Soviets’ Venera (which means Venus in Russian) ran from 1961 to 1984. The first probe, Venera 1, sent in February 1961, lost contact with Earth after just seven days. However, subsequent probes, Venera 9 included, were highly successful.

The Venera 9 mission was especially important due to its surface studies. Venera 9 landed on a 20 degree slope strewn with boulders. There, the craft was able to capture a 180 degree panorama photograph of the rocky terrain–this would return to Earth as the first image we ever saw of a surface of a planet other than our own.

Missions to Venus continue to this day. In all, Russia, the United States and the European Space Agency have sent over twenty spacecraft, conducting studies by flyby mission, orbiting or landing on the planet. Only Mars has been visited more times than Venus of all the planets in outer space.