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Venus may have been named after the Roman goddess of beauty, but once humans started sending spacecraft to the planet next door, we quickly learned that beauty… hurts.
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[♪ INTRO] Venus may have been named after the Roman goddess of beauty, but once humans started sending spacecraft to the planet next door, we quickly learned that beauty… hurts.

After a series of probes were crushed by the intense atmospheric pressure before they could make it to the surface, the Soviet Union finally designed a craft that it hoped could survive all the way. That craft was Venera 7.

And after a harrowing journey with setback after setback, it managed to not only survive the landing, but to make the first call home from the surface of another world. The 1960s could be considered a temporal spacecraft graveyard. As the US and the USSR battled over who would dominate space, there were a lot of mission failures.

And that includes missions to the first interplanetary target: Venus. In 1961, Venera 1 was meant to impact the Venusian surface, but due to a loss in communications, the craft only got about 100,000 kilometers from the planet, and it never sent back any data. NASA’s Mariner 1 was meant to perform a flyby, but it never made it into Earth orbit… because there was a missing hyphen in the software’s code.

But in December of 1962, Mariner 2 did make it to Venus, and gave astronomers the first up close and personal glimpse of the planet next door. Up until that point, most scientists thought Venus could very well be Earth’s twin. A little smaller, a little warmer, but covered in water and maybe filled with life.

Instead, Mariner 2 revealed a thick atmospheric blanket of carbon dioxide, and estimated it was somewhere around 150 to 200 degrees Celsius on the surface, with surface pressures 20 times higher than on Earth. But that only sparked further investigation..and further missteps. Venera 2’s flyby failed to transmit back any data.

Venera 3 actually made it into Venus’s atmosphere as intended, but went dark before it made it that far. Both failures were attributed to overheating. Veneras 4, 5 and 6 transmitted data from the middle of the atmosphere, but were each crushed before they reached the surface.

Meanwhile, Mariner 5 provided another successful flyby. All the data coming back to Earth suggested that the surface was even more extreme than Mariner 2 proposed, both in temperature and pressure. But we wouldn’t know for sure until someone made a craft that could actually make it to the surface and live to tell the tale.

So if the Soviets wanted their next craft to make it to the surface, what could they possibly do? The answer is surprisingly simple… at least in appearance. On the outside, Venera 7 was like some of its predecessors.

It was basically a meter-wide egg. The shape was meant to distribute the pressure evenly, but keep the bigger, heavier end facing down. But on the inside, they added a new feature: a solid sphere of titanium to keep all of the equipment safe for atmospheric pressures up to 180 times that at Earth’s surface.

And to make sure it spent less time in the atmosphere, and didn’t die before hitting the ground, they made the parachute smaller. Since the probe was in for a faster, harder landing, they also threw in some more shock absorbing padding. Venera 7 launched on August 17th, 1970, in tandem with a second rocket carrying its twin named Cosmos 359.

But that twin failed to leave Earth orbit. Venera 7 was on its own. After a four month journey, the probe successfully entered Venus’s atmosphere.

But the hard part had just begun. First, the parachute would have to deploy. And it did, but six minutes later, there was a tear.

The parachute collapsed. Venera 7 couldn’t slow its descent, and it crashed into the surface at a speed of 17 meters per second. But that inside padding did its job.

Scientists back home received the signal that the craft had survived, but after one second, that call appeared to drop, replaced by a bunch of radio static. After the fact, a closer analysis of that static revealed that Venera 7 had survived for way longer than just one second. It was actually sending data back home for 23 minutes.

The rest of the transmission was just super weak. Due to the craft’s egg-like shape and the hard landing, it may have wound up lopsided on the ground, with its antenna pointed away from Earth. While the pressure sensor broke on impact, the temperature sensor was able to send back data.

Where it landed, it was 475 degrees Celsius. Pretty much in line with what the three previous Venera missions had estimated. So it wasn’t a perfect landing, and it didn’t return all the data scientists hoped it would, but Venera 7 proved it was possible to get a probe to the surface of Venus intact.

And that paved the way for future missions. Venera 8 survived for about an hour. Using its light sensor, it confirmed that despite that super thick atmosphere, it was bright enough during the day to be able to take photos.

Subsequently, the first photos from the surface of any other planet were returned by Venera 9 in 1975. The Venera program kept going into the 1980s, with a combination of landers and orbiters. What started with a lot of failure up front, ended up quite the success.

And much of it hinged on what first came across as a single, one-second phone call from the surface of another planet. We’re back with another obscure Soviet space mission and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the pin of the month relating to this year’s theme of exploring the solar system. Because honestly, these missions are the most fun to make pins of.

The Soviets were hard committed to a roly-poly design aesthetic and I for one respect it. You can pre-order this pin right now at the link in the description. We’ll take pre-orders all month, then we’ll close orders, manufacture, and ship.

And we’ll never make a Venera 7 pin again. But we will make another great pin next month, so stay tuned. [♪ OUTRO]