Published: Wed, January 18, 2017
Medical | By Dorothy Lyons

What the Heck Is This Giant Bow-Shaped Structure in Venus's Skies?

It is being caused by what is nearly certainly the largest gravity wave we've ever seen in the Solar System.

Scientists have discovered a mysterious stationary patch in Venus' atmosphere stretching 6,200 miles (10,000 km) across.

And as fast as those acid clouds are, the planet's rotation is painfully slow - one day on Venus lasts longer than it takes for the planet to complete its orbit of the Sun. Similar waves have also been observed in the Earth's atmosphere where they cause disturbance and interfere with the weather and cause turbulence.

An atmospheric gravity wave is a ripple in the density of a planet's atmosphere.

More than 15 atmospheric gravity waves, known as "bows" to the researchers, have been spotted on Venus before - by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency probe Akatsuki and the European Space Agency's own satellites - but the wave spotted in 2015 appeared to be stationary and, at 40 miles above the surface, also appear to be much higher in the atmosphere than any wave previously recorded.

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In this case, the wave is thought to form as the lower atmosphere flows over mountains on Venus' surface. "This is the first evidence of gravity wave propagation from the lower atmosphere to the middle atmosphere". Gravity waves ensue when a fluid - such as a liquid, gas or plasma - is displaced from a position of equilibrium.

Our understanding of gravity waves is now based on models of Earth's atmosphere. Dr Colin is a planetary scientist from the University of Oxford and was not involved in the study. "So, to get it working in their model they had to assume a different wind structure than what is conventionally assumed for Venus, otherwise that feature wouldn't have survived to the height of 65 km". So the atmosphere is moving very fast compared with the planet. Essentially, airflow passing over Venus's mountains was sculpted into waveforms that propagated upward, eventually taking the bow-shape observed by Akatsuki.

While smaller scale gravity waves have been spotted close to ground level on Venus before, the size of this new feature appears to be quite large, most likely the biggest in the solar system, the study team said. "I look forward to see more observations of this bow structure reappearing in the future" as confirmation, he says. This didn't make sense for the simple reason that Venus' upper atmosphere moves at a staggering 100 metres per second.

A massive, un-moving structure has been discovered in the upper atmosphere of Venus.

The Japanese spacecraft swung into orbit around Venus in December 2015 and snapped pictures of the wave until the observations were cut short to allow mission controllers to work on the spacecraft's trajectory and communications. Now, years late, the spacecraft is beaming the data it was supposed to gather back to JAXA.

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