Venus Express Prepares to Descend into Hell

by Elizabeth Howell on May 16, 2014

Artist's impression of an active volcano on Venus. One long-term study of the planet showed that sulphur dioxide is being continually put into the atmosphere. One explanation for that could be volcanic activity, although others exist (such as changes in atmospheric circulation). Credit: ESA/AOES

Artist’s impression of an active volcano on Venus. One long-term study of the planet showed that sulphur dioxide is being continually put into the atmosphere. One explanation for that could be volcanic activity, although others exist (such as changes in atmospheric circulation). Credit: ESA/AOES

Venus is definitely not a friendly planet for humanity. Soviet landers that arrived on the surface a few decades back were crushed pretty quickly. Its surface temperature is more than 842 degrees Fahrenheit (450 degrees Celsius) and the atmosphere is full of noxious gases.

But descending into this pressure-filled cooker is exactly what Venus Express is going to do shortly. The European Space Agency spacecraft will conclude eight years of orbital operations with an attempt to fall into the planet. The maneuvers are complicated, and there’s no guarantee they will go as planned, but ESA plans to make the plunge by the end of this year.

For the better part of a decade, Venus Express has been orbiting the planet every 24 hours, swinging in an elliptical orbit that ranges from 155 miles (250 kilometers ) to 41,010 miles (66,000 kilometers). But now the spacecraft is almost out of fuel, and will now be redirected for “experimental aerobreaking” to slow down through skimming the atmosphere.

The maneuvers will take place between June 18 and July 17, where controllers hope to gain some information about the planet’s magnetic field, solar wind, temperature and pressure.

“The campaign also provides the opportunity to develop and practice the critical operations techniques required for aerobraking, an experience that will be precious for the preparation of future planetary missions that may require it operationally,” stated Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations.

No one is sure if the spacecraft will run out of fuel, or even if it survives, but if it does its orbit could be raised to do a few more scientific observations of the planet before going into the atmosphere forever.

Venus’ Express scientific treasure trove includes measuring hydrogen atom escape in the atmosphere, checking out the planet’s clouds and tracking the slowing rotation of the planet (which is happening for reasons that are not quite clear.) It also discovered an ozone layer on the planet.

Source: European Space Agency

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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