Venus, in astronomy, 2d planet from the sun; it is often called the evening star or morning star and is brighter than any object in the sky except the sun and the moon. Because its orbit lies between the sun and the orbit of the earth, Venus passes through phases like those of the moon, varying from a large bright crescent when the planet is near inferior conjunction (nearest the earth) to a smaller silvery disk when it is at superior conjunction (farthest from the earth). Since its greatest elongation (the angle made between the sun, the earth, and Venus) is 47°, it can never be seen much longer than 3 hr after sunset or 3 hr before sunrise.

Venus revolves around the sun at a mean distance of c.67 million mi (107 million km) in a nearly circular orbit, and its period of revolution is about 225 days. It comes closer to the earth than any other planet, being c.26 million mi (42 million km) away at inferior conjunction. Venus is often referred to as the sister planet of the earth, because it is only slightly smaller in both size and mass. Several important differences, however, exist between the two planets.

Although Venus is covered with a thick blanket of clouds that hides its surface from view, much has been learned of the conditions on Venus from U.S. and Soviet space probes. These probes indicate a surface temperature of about 890°C (475°C) and an atmospheric pressure as great as 100 times that at the earth's surface. The thick atmosphere is composed mainly of carbon dioxide, with a slight amount of water vapor and a trace of nitrogen and other elements. The high surface temperature is assumed to result partly from the greenhouse effect; radiation passing through the atmosphere heats the surface, but the heat is blocked by the enveloping carbon dioxide from escaping back out through the atmosphere. The European Space Agency's Venus Express space probe began orbiting the planet in 2006; its instruments are designed primarily to study the Venusian atmosphere.

Studies also indicate that Venus rotates on its axis in a retrograde direction (opposite to the direction of revolution about the sun) with a period of about 243 days. Despite this slow rotation there is little observed temperature difference between the lighted and unlighted sides of the planet. The surface of Venus is thought to be stormy.

From 1990 to 1992 NASA's Magellan spacecraft mapped the Venusian surface using radar, revealing details of a continentlike feature, called Aphrodite Terra, that crosses the planet's equator and is marked by geologic faults. A second such feature, Ishtar Terra, straddles the north polar region. Magellan also observed many volcanic features, including immense lava plains and large shield volcanoes, and relatively few impact craters resulting from asteroids and comets. Compared to the number of craters on other bodies of the inner solar system, this suggests that the surface of Venus is only about 800 million years old. No strong magnetic field comparable to that of the earth has been detected.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Astronomy: General