Cities in the Clouds


I’ve made a point to talk about the habitability of both Mars and Titan in blog posts as the story has reached those places. I should probably talk about Venus, as well.

Venus is the easiest planet to spot in the night sky. It’s long been called the morning and evening star because of how bright it is at dawn and sunset. Only the moon is brighter than Venus from Earth, and on a very dark night in the country, Venus casts a shadow that is visible to the naked eye. It’s also been called Earth’s sister planet because it is very nearly the same size as Earth, and its gravity is only a little less.

Unfortunately things get ugly for Venus after that, and especially for anyone wanting to step foot on its surface. To call it hostile is an understatement of celestial scale. Venus has a carbon dioxide atmosphere whose pressure is ninety times higher than Earth. This blanket of an atmosphere leads to a surface temperature at the equator of around 842 F (450 C). At this temperature, you can melt lead. Then there is also the fact that the clouds are made of sulfuric acid. I don’t think I have to explain why this makes a landing on the surface difficult, and in fact, no space program has been foolhardy enough to attempt such a feat…

Size comparison of Earth and Venus. Radar image of Venus surface shown.

Size comparison of Earth and Venus. Radar image of Venus surface shown.

Ha! That’s a lie…

This was the realm of the Soviet Union. While NASA has sent a few probes towards Venus over the years, the Russians made many attempts at putting landers onto the surface. Some were crushed like tin cans. Some failed in the high heat. A few finally sent back pictures. Unfortunately, I can’t find any copies of these pictures that have clear licensing since NASA doesn’t own those pictures. If you search for “Surface of Venus” and start looking for images, you’ll see the last and only images those landers took before failing in the hellish environment.

Here’s the surprise though. Venus might actually be easier to colonize than you would think.

Venus is UV taken from Pioneer Venus Orbieter (Feb 26, 1979)

Venus is UV taken from Pioneer Venus Orbieter (Feb 26, 1979)

At a little over 50 miles (80km), the crushing pressure on Venus drops to one atmosphere, and the temperature to 32-122 F (0-50 C). This is surprisingly hospitable. The trick is to make your habitat float. At this layer of Venus atmosphere, breathable air is more buoyant than the ones beneath. Unlike a balloon on Earth, you don’t need hydrogen, helium, or some other lightweight gas to remain aloft. All you need is need breathable air!

Now there are still difficulties involved. The wind speed at this altitude is expected to reach 210 mph (340 KPH). This would have a floating city encircling the entire planet in about four days. There is also the issue of the sulfuric acid in the air. Any exterior surface would need to be protected with a resistant material such as Teflon.

But here comes a surprise bonus to colonizing Venus. That same sulfuric acid? You can use industrial processes to extract water, hydrogen, and oxygen from it, meaning some of life’s most important staples are surprisingly available from the lethal atmosphere.

NASA has actually done studies on the concept of sending astronauts to Venus’ upper atmosphere. The project was called HAVOC, and while it was more of a thought experiment than a seriously planned mission, (we’re a long ways out from it being feasible) the write-ups are pretty impressive. You can click here to read more on HAVOC. (And I mean a LOT more…)

When writing After Moses, I took this research into account and created the floating cities of Concordia and Discordia. Culturally, I decided not to have them based on any single Earth culture. While I imagined that some places retained their identities from their founding nations, I expect some colonies would form their own identities. Venus was just such a place, with its series of benevolent emperors and empresses. Perhaps its a little less grounded feeling than the other colonies (I promise I didn’t mean that as a pun about flying cities...) but this IS science fiction, and I wanted at least one whimsical and fantastic place!

While cities in the clouds may seem like something from Star Wars, they aren’t nearly as far fetched as you would imagine.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re enjoying After Moses. Check in next Friday. The crew will be heading back to Mars for a bit of an intermission between jobs.

Have a great weekend!

Michael KaneComment