Trying to lift the veils under which Venus hid itself from our gaze: The saga of the Soviet planetary probe Venera 1

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An editorial cartoon highlighting the launch of the Soviet planetary probe Venera 1 in February 1961. Edmund Alexander Sebestyen, “To Venus With Love.” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 14 February 1961, 4.

It just occurred to me that our blog / bulletin / thingee had not reached for the stars for some / many weeks. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum being what it is, this failing on my part must be rectified. Honour demands no less. Humour demands no less either.

And yes, this will be the second time this month that yours truly has used editorial cartoons as anchors for articles of our blog / bulletin / thingee. What can I say (type?), I like editorial cartoons.

This one, entitled “To Venus With Love,” by well-known and respected cartoonist Edmund Alexander “Ed” Sebestyen, was published in the 14 February 1961 issue of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, daily newspaper Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

It depicted a Soviet rocket moving toward a far distant object, presumably our sister / brother planet Venus. A cute and somewhat creepy message (A heart pierced by a sickle?) could be seen on said rocket, “Be my Valentine! Niki.”

The “Niki” in question was / is of course Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. The unsavoury first secretary of the central committee of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, in other words the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2019, two years ago.

It looks as if Soviet citizens did not celebrate Valentine’s Day, a secular holiday held on 14 February, unlike a lot of North Americans. Mind you, Valentine was a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, not one of the Rússkaya Pravoslávnaya Tsérkov, but I digress.

A few lines on Sebestyen would be most appropriate at this instant in the space time continuum. He was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in March 1930. In his youth, Sebestyen was Saskatchewan’s slalom skiing champion (3 times) and downhill skiing champion (4 times). Hired by the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix in 1949, he occupied a variety of functions, from photoengraver to executive vice-president. Sebestyen began to draw editorial cartoons for the newspaper during the 1950s. Indeed, he was the first, and only, full time editorial cartoonist of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, between 1957 and 1964. Sebestyen retired in 1991. He left this Earth in December 2001, at the age of 81. End of a most interesting digression.

The rocket drawn by Sebestyen did not look at all like the probe at the heart of this article. Nay. Venera 1 was its name, although it was also known as Ob’yekt B and Produkt 1VA Nomer 2, and the planet Venus was the goal of its game. And yes, Western journalists sometimes called Venera 1 Venus / Vénus and Venusik.

The story of the Soviet Venusian exploration programme began in the late 1950s, or early 1960s, when the deputy premier of the USSR and chairperson of the Voyenno-promyshlennaya Komissiya, or military-industrial commission, Dmitry Fyodorovich Ustinov, seemingly indicated to the father of the Soviet space programme that he should develop probes which would explore nearby planets of the Solar system. And yes, chief designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was mentioned several times in our you know what since February 2019.

Taking advantage of the favourable positions of Earth and Venus, Korolev and his team launched the world’s first Venusian probe in early February 1961. And no, this was not Venera 1. The probe in question was identical to it, mind you, but was destroyed shortly after launch as a result of a problem with the rocket. The Soviet government covered up the failure of the rocket by stating that it had successfully put a satellite into orbit, the non-existent Sputnik 7.

The problem with the rocket was quickly identified and the one destined for the next probe, and yes, that one was Venera 1, was hastily modified. The modification proved effective.

Indeed, the rocket carrying Venera 1 worked flawlessly when launched, on 12 February, from the 5-y Nauchno-Issledovatel’skiy Ispytatel’nyy Poligon, or 5th research and development test site, close to Töretam, Qazaq Keñestik Socïalïstik Respwblïkasi, or Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, USSR, today’s Kazakhstan.

Once in orbit, the second stage of the rocket successfully fired, a world first, sending Venera 1 toward Venus. Designed to study our neighbour from up close, it was the first planetary probe to actually go beyond the orbit of the Earth without going kablooey.

Incidentally, that second stage may, I repeat may, have been referred to as Tyazhelyy Sputnik 02, or Heavy satellite 02, in the USSR, and as Sputnik 8 in several Western countries.

Incidentally squared, the rocket which launched Venera 1 toward Venus was closely related to the Korolev R-7 “Semyorka” intercontinental ballistic missile mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.

A life size mock-up of Venera 1, Momorial’nyy Muzey Kosmonáutiki, Moscow, Russia, December 2011. Wikipedia.

A life size mock-up of Venera 1, Momorial’nyy Muzey Kosmonáutiki, Moscow, Russia, December 2011. Wikipedia.

Being the lazy bum that I am, I will now paraphrase and quote a September 2019 issue of that same world famous our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Venera 1 was a rather innovative spacecraft. It was the first designed to perform course corrections in deep space, using a 3 axis stabilisation system that could fix on the Sun and a star or the Earth. Better yet, it was the first spacecraft to use a parabolic antenna to transmit the data it would collect. As far as I can figure out, Venera 1 was supposed to enter Venus’s atmosphere. In that regard, the upper section of the probe was designed to float at the surface of one of the oceans some / many Soviet scientists seemingly thought / hoped existed on Venus.

Yes, yes, oceans. The thick cloud cover which hid Venus from our gaze allowed scientists, and science fiction writers, to ponder the mysteries of our celestial neighbour. After all, Venus was / is quite similar in size to Earth, with a diameter of about 12 100 kilometres (about 7 520 miles) versus about 12 740 kilometres (7 920 miles). It is closer to the sun, however, (108 million kilometres (67 million miles) versus 147 million kilometres (91 million miles)) and it’s year is shorter (about 225 Earth days versus about 365 Earth days).

Given this, many scientists and science fiction writers thought that Venus might be an ocean planet, or a swamp planet, or a desert planet. No one really knew, because of those infuriatingly thick clouds.

The science fiction authors who put forward the oceanic hypothesis included British author (fantasy, fiction, science fiction, theology) and theologian Clive Staples Lewis, in Perelandra, a 1943 science fiction novel, and Russian American author (science fiction popular science) and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov, in Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, a 1954 juvenile science fiction novel published under the name of Paul French, but back to our probe. And no, that will not hurt a bit.

As luck would have it, the Soviet ground control team lost contact with Venera-1 in late February 1961, after 3 successful contacts. Days went by as the engineers tried to reach their wayward and very important probe. At some point, someone suggested that the radio telescope of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, in the United Kingdom, might be able to make contact with Venera-1. One can surmise that some / many people in the government of the USSR were not thrilled at the idea of admitting to a failure and, on top of that, asking an ideological enemy if it could offer assistance. In the end, however, someone, presumably someone important, gave his blessing to the idea. By the time said blessing arrived, the month of June had begun.

By then, Venera 1 had come within 100 000 kilometres (62 000 miles) of Venus, around mid-May, before going into orbit around the Sun – a 311 day orbit it was still following as of 2021.

And yes, Jodrell Bank Observatory was mentioned in September 2019, August 2020 and October 2920 issues of our you know what, but back to early June of 1961 in the USSR.

Alla Genrikhovna Masevich, a well-known and respected astrophysicist and deputy chairperson of the astronomical council of the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza, the academy of sciences of the USSR, made a phone call, from Moscow, to a good and slightly older friend, the Isaac Newton of radio astronomy and first director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell. And yes, Masevich and Lovell were mentioned in September 2019 and October 2020 issues of our you know what.

Lovell immediately agreed to help. His influence within British government circles was such that Masevich was able to fly to England the following day, with a colleague, Jouli Khodarev. Within days, and with the help of Lovell, they were able to pick up excruciatingly weak signals that might, I repeat might, have come from Venera-1. That was seemingly as good as it got. Masevich and Khodarev spent some time at the observatory, hoping to pick up signals whose nature they could actually determine. Their hopes remained unfulfilled, and…

What was the problem with Venera 1, you ask, my reading friend? Well, a likely hypothesis is that a sensor involved in the orientation of the probe had overheated and failed.

The USSR launched 2 probes designed to land on Venus in August and September 1962. Both of their rockets failed in low Earth orbit. A probe designed to fly by our neighbour failed for the same reason in September. Six additional probes designed to fly by Venus or land on its surface were launched in 1964-65. All of these missions failed for one reason or other. Venera 4 successfully entered Venus’ atmosphere in June 1967, however – a world first. Venera 7 successfully landed on Venus in December 1970 – another world first.

This being said (typed?), the American probe Mariner 2 had successfully flown by Venus in December 1962, gathering data which showed that our hidden neighbour was the planet closest to hell that humans has seen so far, with temperatures of 500 or so degrees Celsius (930 or so degrees Fahrenheit) – which was / is a wee bit higher than the 465 or so degrees Celsius (870 or so degrees Fahrenheit) registered by later probes.

Venus seemingly suffered from a bad case of runaway greenhouse effect in its youth, not that climate change is a fact, of course. That’s all fake news, foisted upon us by the lizard people.

And no, the temperature these days in Ottawa, Ontario, is not quite hellish.

Have fun, my reading friend, in moderation of course – and stay home.

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Rénald Fortier