Thirty five years ago yesterday, we could only imagine the view from the surface of another world. But Russia’s Venera 9 probe changed all that, beaming back the first ever photo of another planet—25 million miles away.
By 1975, the moon was no longer a frontier. It had been landed on, hopped across, analyzed, filmed, photographed, and dug into. The next step wasn’t the tiny rock orbiting us, but a real, giant planet, just like our own. Russia set its sights on Venus—our closest cosmic neighbor, despite being tens of millions of miles away.
We’d been looking at Venus for hundreds of years—thousands, really, since it’s often the brightest point in the at night, easily visible with the naked eye. But to be there in some sense, and to make something so distant and so foreign seem attainable, we needed eyes on the ground. And since nobody was in any shape to send humans to do the job (and sure won’t be for a long time), robot eyes had to do the trick.
The Venera 9 probe provided those robo-eyes, consisting of a massive, enormously heavy craft (four times the heft of Russia’s previous generation). It came in two parts—a large, bulbous orbiter that transmitted info back to earth and measured the toxic clouds of Venus (sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide, blech!)—and, more importantly, the lander. After parachuting to the rocky, volcanic surface of the planet, the Venera 9’s landing pod had to quickly chill itself against the 860°F surface temps with coils pre-packaged coolant, allowing for only a scant 53 minutes to operate before it went dead.
But before that point, Venera 9 snapped the money shot: a 180 degree panoramic vista of Venus. Russia had hoped for a full 360, though malfunctioning cameras foiled the plan. Nonetheless, 180 degrees of another planet was more than enough. It revealed a sharp, cloudy, rather unfriendly looking swath of terrain. NASA says the Russians described it “as bright as Moscow on a cloudy day in June.” But no matter how dour, it was another planet, straight from the source, for the first time ever. We didn’t have to hypothesize or draw—Venus wasn’t the realm of sci-fi anymore, but science. More recent Mars rovers have delivered imagery that greatly trumps Venera’s—but with decades of advanced tech on their side. And whether high or low res, in color or not, both the Venera 9 and its successors are feeding our curiosity to not just see planets as posters in a classroom, but to, as best we can, stand there ourselves.