ESA’s EnVision Mission Doesn’t Have a lot of Fuel, so it’s Going to Aerobrake in the Atmosphere of Venus

Artist impression of ESA's EnVision mission. Credit:ESA/VR2Planets/Damia Bouic

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.

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Missions Are Already Being Planned to Figure Out What’s Creating the Biosignature on Venus

The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

The discovery of phosphine in the upper clouds in Venus’ atmosphere has generated a lot of excitement. On Earth, phosphine is produced biologically, so it’s a sign of life. If it’s not produced by life, it takes an enormous amount of energy to be created abiologically.

On other planets like Jupiter, there’s enough energy to produce phosphine, so finding it there isn’t surprising. But on a small rocky world like Venus, where there’s no powerful source of energy, its existence is surprising.

This discovery clearly needs some more investigating.

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Japan’s Akatsuki Spacecraft to Make Second Attempt to Enter Orbit of Venus in December 2015

Artist’s impression of the Venus Climate Orbiter (aka. “Akatsuki”) by Akihiro Ikeshita. Image Credit: JAXA

Back in 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the The Venus Climate Orbiter “Akatsuki” with the intention of learning more about the planet’s weather and surface conditions. Unfortunately, due to engine trouble, the probe failed to make it into the planet’s orbit.

Since that time, it has remained in a heliocentric orbit, some 134 million kilometers from Venus, conducting scientific studies on the solar wind. However, JAXA is going to make one more attempt to slip the probe into Venus’ orbit before its fuel runs out.

Since 2010, JAXA has been working to keep Akatsuki functioning so that they could give the spacecraft another try at entering Venus’ orbit.

After a thorough examination of all the possibilities for the failure, JAXA determined that the probe’s main engine burned out as it attempted to decelerate on approach to the planet. They claim this was likely due to a malfunctioning valve in the spacecraft’s fuel pressure system caused by salt deposits jamming the valve between the helium pressurization tank and the fuel tank. This resulted in high temperatures that damaged the engine’s combustion chamber throat and nozzle.

A radar view of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft, with some gaps filled in by the Pioneer Venus orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL
A radar view of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft, with some gaps filled in by the Pioneer Venus orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

JAXA adjusted the spacecraft’s orbit so that it would establish a heliocentric orbit, with the hopes that it would be able to swing by Venus again in the future. Initially, the plan was to make another orbit insertion attempt by the end 2016 when the spacecraft’s orbit would bring it back to Venus. But because the spacecraft’s speed has slowed more than expected, JAXA determined if they slowly decelerated Akatsuki even more, Venus would “catch up with it” even sooner. A quicker return to Venus would also be advantageous in terms of the lifespan of the spacecraft and its equipment.

But this second chance will likely be the final chance, depending on how much damage there is to the engines and other systems. The reasons for making this final attempt are quite obvious. In addition to providing vital information on Venus’ meteorological phenomena and surface conditions, the successful orbital insertion of Akatsuki would also be the first time that Japan deployed a satellite around a planet other than Earth.

If all goes well, Akatsuki will enter orbit around Venus at a distance of roughly 300,000 to 400,000 km from the surface, using the probe’s 12 smaller engines since the main engine remains non-functional. The original mission called for the probe to establish an elliptical orbit that would place it 300 to 80,000 km away from Venus’ surface.

This wide variation in distance was intended to provide the chance to study the planet’s meteorological phenomena and its surface in detail, while still being able to observe atmospheric particles escaping into space.

Artist's impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Credit: ESA - AOES Medialab
Artist’s impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Image Credit: ESA – AOES Medialab

At a distance of 400,000 km, the image quality and opportunities to capture them are expected to be diminished. However, JAXA is still confident that it will be able to accomplish most of the mission’s scientific goals.

In its original form, these goals included obtaining meteorological information on Venus using four cameras that capture images in the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. These would be responsible for globally mapping clouds and peering beneath the veil of the planet’s thick atmosphere.

Lightning would be detected with a high-speed imager, and radio-science monitors would observe the vertical structure of the atmosphere. In so doing, JAXA hopes to confirm the existence of surface volcanoes and lighting, both of which were first detected by the ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft. One of the original aims of Akatsuki was to complement the Venus Express mission. But Venus Express has now completed its mission, running out of gas and plunging into the planet’s atmosphere.

But most of all, it is hoped that Akatsuki can provide observational data on the greatest mystery of Venus, which has to do with its surface storms.

Artists impression of lightning storms on Venus. Credit: ESA
Artists impression of lightning storms on Venus. Credit: ESA

Previous observations of the planet have shown that winds that can reach up to 100 m/s (360 km/h or ~225 mph) circle the planet every four to five Earth days. This means that Venus experiences winds that are up to 60 times faster than the speed at which the planet turns, a phenomena known as “Super-rotation”.

Here on Earth, the fastest winds are only capable of reaching between 10 and 20 percent of the planet’s rotation. As such, our current meteorological understanding does not account for these super-high speed winds, and it is hoped that more information on the atmosphere will provide some clues as to how this can happen.

Between the extremely thick clouds, sulfuric rain storms, lightning, and high-speed winds, Venus’ atmosphere is certainly very interesting! Add to the fact that the volcanic, pockmarked surface cannot be surveyed without the help of sophisticated radar or IR imaging, and you begin to understand why JAXA is eager to get their probe into orbit while they still can.

And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of JAXA, detailing the Venus Climate Orbiter mission:

Further Reading: JAXA