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Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility. Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky. Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume. Because of its size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus. Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).
Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus. In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure). In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean. The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).
The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong. Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid. Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago. Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).
Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain). The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide. Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities. Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology. Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies. As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).
Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists). Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans. Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens. Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below. Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth. How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?
If you are wondering through the great untouched rainforests of the Amazon basin, you will sometimes come across a clearing devoid of all vegetation save for a few trees. These bare patches are known as devil’s gardens and are said to be the haunt of the fearsome Chuyachaqui (or Chullachaqui), a shape shifting demon which delights in causing misfortune to travelers. Although the Chuyachaqui’s default form is that of a small misshapen man with one hoof and one human foot, the demon can change shape into a person known to the traveler in order to mislead the latter to doom.
Scientists were curious about these small bare patches of forest. After carefully studying the ecosystem, they discovered that a force nearly as diabolical as the Chuyachaqui is responsible. The lemon ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, produces formic acid, a natural herbicide which it methodically injects into the plants in a “devil’s clearing”. The only plants which the ants leaves alone are Duroia hirsuta, “lemon ant trees” which have evolved a mutualistic relationship with the ants. The lemon ants keep the forest free of competing trees and plants, while the lemon ant tree is hollow inside—a perfect natural ant hive and its leaves provide a source of nutrition for the lemon ants (which are a sort of leaf-cutter).
Large colonies of lemon ant trees have been found which are believed to be more than 800 years old—far older than the life of any ant colony or individual tree. It is remarkable to think these ant/tree settlements have been part of the rainforest since before the Mongol conquests.