Venus has almost been “the forgotten planet,” with only one space mission going there in the past 30 years. But the recent resurgence of interest in Earth’s closest neighbor has NASA and ESA committing to three new missions to Venus, all due to launch by the early 2030s.
ESA’s EnVision mission Venus is slated to take high-resolution optical, spectral and radar images of the planet’s surface. But to do so, the van-sized spacecraft will need to perform a special maneuver called aerobraking to gradually slow down and lower its orbit through the planet’s hot, thick atmosphere. Aerobraking uses atmospheric drag to slow down a spacecraft and EnVision will make thousands of passages through Venus’ atmosphere for about two years.
In March of 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission into space. A joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, this two-part mission consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, both of which arrived in orbit around Mars in October of 2016. While Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to land, the TGO has gone on to accomplish some impressive feats.
For example, in March of 2017, the orbiter commenced a series of aerobraking maneuvers, where it started to lower its orbit to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere and slow itself down. According to Armelle Hubault, the Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the TGO flight control team, the ExoMars mission has made tremendous progress and is well on its way to establishing its final orbit around the Red Planet.
TGO’s mission has been to study the surface of Mars, characterize the distribution of water and chemicals beneath the surface, study the planet’s geological evolution, identify future landing sites, and to search for possible biosignatures of past Martian life. Once it has established its final orbit around Mars – 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface – the TGO will be ideally positioned to conduct these studies.
The ESA also released a graphic (shown above) demonstrating the successive orbits the TGO has made since it began aerobraking – and will continue to make until March of 2018. Whereas the red dot indicates the orbiter (and the blue line its current orbit), the grey lines show successive reductions in the TGO’s orbital period. The bold lines denote a reduction of 1 hour while the thin lines denote a reduction of 30 minutes.
Essentially, a single aerobraking maneuver consist of the orbiter passing into Mars’ upper atmosphere and relying on its solar arrays to generate tiny amounts of drag. Over time, this process slows the craft down and gradually lowers its orbit around Mars. As Armelle Hubault recently posted on the ESA’s rocket science blog:
“We started on the biggest orbit with an apocentre (the furthest distance from Mars during each orbit) of 33 200 km and an orbit of 24 hr in March 2017, but had to pause last summer due to Mars being in conjunction. We recommenced aerobraking in August 2017, and are on track to finish up in the final science orbit in mid-March 2018. As of today, 30 Jan 2018, we have slowed ExoMars TGO by 781.5 m/s. For comparison, this speed is more than twice as fast as the speed of a typical long-haul jet aircraft.”
Earlier this week, the orbiter passed through the point where it made its closest approach to the surface in its orbit (the pericenter passage, represented by the red line). During this approach, the craft dipped well into Mars’ uppermost atmosphere, which dragged the aircraft and slowed it down further. In its current elliptical orbit, it reaches a maximum distance of 2700 km (1677 mi) from Mars (it’s apocenter).
Despite being a decades-old practice, aerobraking remains a significant technical challenge for mission teams. Every time a spacecraft passes through a planet’s atmosphere, its flight controllers need to make sure that its orientation is just right in order to slow down and ensure that the craft remains stable. If their calculations are off by even a little, the spacecraft could begin to spin out of control and veer off course. As Hubault explained:
“We have to adjust our pericentre height regularly, because on the one hand, the martian atmosphere varies in density (so sometimes we brake more and sometimes we brake less) and on the other hand, martian gravity is not the same everywhere (so sometimes the planet pulls us down and sometimes we drift out a bit). We try to stay at about 110 km altitude for optimum braking effect. To keep the spacecraft on track, we upload a new set of commands every day – so for us, for flight dynamics and for the ground station teams, it’s a very demanding time!”
The next step for the flight control team is to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft into its final orbit (represented by the green line on the diagram). At this point, the spacecraft will be in its final science and operation data relay orbit, where it will be in a roughly circular orbit about 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface of Mars. As Hubault wrote, the process of bringing the TGO into its final orbit remains a challenging one.
“The main challenge at the moment is that, since we never know in advance how much the spacecraft is going to be slowed during each pericentre passage, we also never know exactly when it is going to reestablish contact with our ground stations after pointing back to Earth,” she said. “We are working with a 20-min ‘window’ for acquisition of signal (AOS), when the ground station first catches TGO’s signal during any given station visibility, whereas normally for interplanetary missions we have a firm AOS time programmed in advance.”
With the spacecraft’s orbital period now shortened to less than 3 hours, the flight control team has to go through this exercise 8 times a day now. Once the TGO has reached its final orbit (by March of 2018), the orbiter will remain there until 2022, serving as a telecommunications relay satellite for future missions. One of its tasks will be to relay data from the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, which will consist of a European rover and a Russian surface platform being deployed the surface of Mars in the Spring of 2021.
Along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, this rover/lander pair will be the latest in a long line of robotic missions looking to unlock the secrets of Mars past. In addition, these missions will conduct crucial investigations that will pave the way for eventual sample return missions to Earth, not to mention crewed to the surface!
It was a daring maneuver, but the plan to put Venus Express lower in the planet’s thick atmosphere has worked. For the past month, the European Space Agency steered the long-running spacecraft to altitudes as low as 81 miles (131 kilometers) for a couple of minutes at a time.
Now the spacecraft has been steered again to safer, higher orbits. And naturally, this was all done in the name of science. It not only showed scientists information about the atmosphere, but also gave them engineering data of how a spacecraft behaves when it touches a planetary atmosphere at high speed. That could be useful for future landing missions.
“We have collected valuable data on the Venusian atmosphere in a region difficult to characterise by other means,” stated Hakan Svedhem, Venus Express project scientist for the European Space Agency.
“The results show that the atmosphere seems to be more variable than previously thought for this altitude range, but further analysis will be needed in order to explain these variations properly.”
The dips into hell were hard on the spacecraft. At times, its temperatures rose by more than 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). That said, initial surveys of the spacecraft show all is well, although more analysis will be needed. Also, its orbit was reduced by more than an hour because its speed was slowed down by so much.
While the spacecraft performed 15 thruster burns to raise up above the atmosphere, the reprieve will be temporary. There is little fuel left in the spacecraft, which has been been at the planet since 2006. Now its new lowest point in the orbit is 460 km (286 miles), but over the next few months it will fall again due to the force of gravity. Mission planners expect the spacecraft will survive until about December, when it falls into the atmosphere for good.
“Aerobraking can be used to reduce the speed of a spacecraft approaching a planet or moon with an atmosphere, allowing it to be captured into orbit, and to move from an elliptical orbit to a more circular one,” the agency wrote.
“Less fuel has to be carried, yielding benefits all round. The technique will be used on future missions and the Venus Express experiments will help guide their design.”