Venus and Earth are similar in size, mass, density, composition, and distance from the sun. There, however, is where the similarities end.
Venus is covered by a thick, rapidly spinning atmosphere, creating a scorched world with temperatures hot enough to melt lead and a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth. Because of its proximity to Earth and the way its clouds reflect sunlight, Venus appears to be the brightest planet in the sky.
Like Mercury, Venus can be seen periodically passing across the face of the sun. These transits occur in pairs, with more than a century separating each pair. Since the telescope was invented, transits have been observed in 1631, 1639; 1761, 1769; and 1874, 1882. On June 8, 2004, astronomers worldwide saw the tiny dot of Venus crawl across the sun; the second in this pair of early 21st-century transits will occur June 6, 2012.
Venus's atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets. Only trace amounts of water have been detected in the atmosphere. The thick atmosphere traps the sun's heat, resulting in surface temperatures over 880 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius). Probes that have landed on Venus have not survived more than a few hours before being destroyed by the incredibly high temperatures.
The Venusian year (orbital period) is about 225 Earth days long, while the planet's rotation period is 243 Earth days, making a Venus day about 117 Earth days long. Venus rotates retrograde (east to west) compared with Earth's prograde (west to east) rotation. Seen from Venus, the sun would rise in the west and set in the east. As Venus moves forward in its solar orbit while slowly rotating "backwards" on its axis, the cloud-level atmosphere zips around the planet in the opposite direction from the rotation every four Earth days, driven by constant hurricane-force winds. How this atmospheric "super rotation" forms and is maintained continues to be a topic of scientific investigation.
About 90 percent of the surface of Venus appears to be recently solidified basalt lava; it is thought that the planet was completely resurfaced by volcanic activity 300 million to 500 million years ago.
Sulfur compounds, possibly attributable to volcanic activity, are abundant in Venus's clouds. The corrosive chemistry and dense, moving atmosphere cause significant surface weathering and erosion. Radar images of the surface show wind streaks and sand dunes. Craters smaller than 0.9 to 1.2 miles (1.5 to 2 kilometers) across do not exist on Venus, because small meteors burn up in the dense atmosphere before they can reach the surface.
More than a thousand volcanoes or volcanic centers larger than 12 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter dot the surface of Venus. Volcanic flows have produced long, sinuous channels extending for hundreds of kilometers.
Venus has two large highland areas: Ishtar Terra, about the size of Australia, in the north polar region, and Aphrodite Terra, about the size of South America, straddling the equator and extending for almost 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers). Maxwell Montes, the highest mountain on Venus and comparable to Mount Everest on Earth, is at the eastern edge of Ishtar Terra.
Venus has an iron core about 1,200 miles (3,000 kilometers) in radius. Venus has no global magnetic field; though its core iron content is similar to that of Earth, Venus rotates too slowly to generate the type of magnetic field that Earth has.
Image on top: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech