Commissioned Artwork: Terraforming Venus 2523

Terraforming Venus 2523. CC-BY 4.0 Alex Howe, commissioned from Dusty Crosley (see bottom of page for details).

I published this art piece on YouTube, Twitter earlier today. You can watch the video here. I’ve reproduced the transcript in this post, along with a few extra notes.

Video Transcript (with notes)

One year ago, I published a paper[1] and a video about a new plan I designed for terraforming Venus, which involves building an entire new surface around the planet floating above the hot, dense atmosphere—what I like to call “cloud continents.” Read the preprint of the paper here. Original video here.

That paper was a thought experiment. There are no plans to terraform Venus in the works. I’ll be the first to admit that it would be silly to even consider it in this century. But I want you to look past that for a moment and envision a time, hundreds of years from now, when we might decide to try it.

I commissioned this artwork from concept artist Dusty Crosley to illustrate the potential for someday terraforming Venus. Imagine, if you will, the year is 2523, and terraforming operations on our sister planet are in full swing. Floating tiles—essentially airships filled with buoyant nitrogen from Venus’s atmosphere—are maneuvered into position by robotic drones and attached to the edge of a floating continent that already spans half the planet. Some seventy billion of them[2] will be needed to complete the new surface—a years-long operation in itself. Activity is frantic here at the edge, as this first step is the one that must be done all at once before the rest of the work can begin.

Beneath the tiles, sails of a light, but tough fabric catch the wind, constantly adjusting to make it flow more parallel to the surface, easing the strain on it and keeping it spinning with Venus’s superrotating atmosphere.[3] Later, they will be converted to attachment points for the much larger lifting cells that will support the planet’s future civilization.

The top surface of the tiles is mostly white, reflecting sunlight to keep the upper atmosphere at its cool, human-tolerable temperature. Eventually, about half of the tiles will be covered with solar panels, but only a few of them have been installed so far, just enough to keep up with operations. The vast solar farms that will power the conversion of the atmosphere to oxygen will come later.

Overseeing the operation is a floating colony, held aloft by a tall stack of airship-tiles. This settlement is a small one, as can be seen by the fact that its dome is a single piece. Almost a company town, it moves with the edge of the continent and monitors the drones as they work, its long stabilizing masts serving a dual role as maintenance and charging platforms. The outdoor workers in this town don’t need spacesuits, even outside the dome—only oxygen masks and protection against the acidic clouds. Other than that, the weather conditions are fairly pleasant.

The “inland” regions of the continent feature much more impressive cities. “Sky islands,” like the one pictured, but much wider, are being built out to support true floating cities, kilometers wide and with their own croplands, covered by domes that are not a single piece, but are assembled from transparent versions of the same tiles.

A chain of these sky islands has been built around the north pole to oversee the robotic mining on the Ishtar Terra plateau, which, along with the atmosphere, supplies most of the raw materials the colonists need—except one. In the distance, you can see a ship entering the atmosphere, aerobraking as it comes in to rendezvous with one of the northern cities. This is a tanker ship from Earth, carrying the one thing that on Venus is always in short supply: water. Bulk importation of hard-landed ice blocks from Mars can’t begin until the continent is completed to catch the ensuing rainfall. And that’s just the beginning.

The terraforming of Venus is a project larger than the entire history of the United States. The atmosphere itself won’t be breathable for another hundred years. But to the people of the twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, and twenty-eight centuries, if we’re very lucky, perhaps it will be within our grasp.

About the Artwork

I wanted this artwork to hold to scientific accuracy to match the paper. (The drones are quadcopters, not antigravity, for example.) Thus, I made sure the artwork didn’t break any laws of physics to the best of my ability, but I was willing to bend them a little to better convey the message of the picture. Everything you see in the image is possible, but it is not necessarily the most likely way to design a terraforming operation on Venus.

The floating city is the largest sitting on top of a stack of nitrogen-filled aerostats, it’s an inverted pendulum and therefore at risk of tipping over. I added the stabilizing masts to better balance it, but it would still need an active balance system. The fact that it’s being lifted by a large stack of the regular tiles instead of a custom system suggested it was thrown together quickly. Perhaps it was one of the first settlements on Venus, built before more specialized equipment became available.

The “standard” design for the sky islands supporting the floating cities would use much larger lifting cells, both wider and taller that the airship-tiles in the picture. Also, for a city that small, it might be suspended underneath them for stability, as in a conventional airship. However, stacking up the regular tiles made it clearer how the city was built. Speaking of which, the tiles themselves would likely be larger, too. The reference design in the original paper called for tiles 100 meters (330 feet) wide, but making them closer in size to the drones made it clearer how the assembly process works.

Finally, the weather conditions in the scene are unusually clear. At this altitude on Venus, about 50 km (30 miles), the air above is likely to be very cloudy, but clear conditions aren’t impossible, especially near the poles. Showing the clouds below and blue-ish sky above (something that is also shown in official NASA artwork for the HAVOC mission concept) made it much clearer where on Venus the construction is taking place.


Ordinarily, I would incorporate artwork like this into my normal content creation workflow. However, because this artwork is illustrating a scholarly paper (although to be clear, it is not directly associated with the paper, nor with NASA), I wanted to make it more accessible, in line with the movement for open access in astronomy. Therefore, as the rightsholder per the commission agreement, I am releasing this artwork to Creative Commons BY-4.0. You may use it for any purpose as long as you give appropriate attribution under this license.

[1] Contrary to some news articles and videos, the paper was peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. It’s just that it’s only in the print edition, since for some reason, JBIS hasn’t put out a new digital edition since 2021.

[2] Billion, not trillion; that’s also been misreported in some places.

[3] This was a design element added by Dusty, which I thought improved the design, so I kept it.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
This entry was posted in Art, Science, Science Fiction, Space and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Commissioned Artwork: Terraforming Venus 2523

  1. Adam Crowl says:

    Wow! Nicely done Alex & Dusty Crosley! Excellent approach to terraforming Venus. I’ve been meaning to ask Raymond Pierrehumbert about modelling the effects of shading Venus totally like Paul Birch’s concepts have described. Birch assumed purely a radiative process, but with a whole load of condensation of the CO2 at its Critical Point, I suspect the process would be very complex to model.

    Your concept, I suspect, would cause the H2SO4 to rain out fairly quickly, cooling the surface to the dissociation temperature (300 C) in short order, given the shading involved. Once that happens pools of oleum will build up and the skies above will more or less clear.

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