After more than eight years orbiting Earth’s cloud-shrouded neighbor, ESA’s Venus Express is finally nearing the end of its fuel reserves — and thus the end of its mission — and will soon complete its journey with a suicidal swan dive into the broiling planet’s acid-laden atmosphere.
Seeing an opportunity for more investigations (Venus Express is the only spacecraft around Venus, after all) scientists are planning to use this final phase of the mission to attempt an experimental aerobraking maneuver, which will drop the lowest point of the spacecraft’s orbit to within 130 kilometers — about 80 miles — of the planet’s surface.
In addition to furthering knowledge of Venus, the data gathered will be useful for future exploration missions that may use aerobraking to establish orbit or land on a planet’s surface.
The dive is planned for June 18 – July 11. Watch an animated visualization of the technique below:
“It is only by carrying out daring operations like these that we can gain new insights, not only about usually inaccessible regions of the planet’s atmosphere, but also how the spacecraft and its components respond to such a hostile environment,” said Patrick Martin, Venus Express mission manager.
It’s a risky maneuver, but at this point there’s not much to lose. The spacecraft will soon have run out of the fuel necessary to maintain its elliptical orbit anyway.
If it survives its summer plunge, Venus Express could be brought back up to a higher orbit to perform more observations, at least until the last of its fuel is spent. Either way, a dramatic end is near for a successful mission full of discoveries and insights into the true nature of Earth’s pressure-cooked “sister world.”
“Venus Express has penetrated deeper into the mysteries of this veiled planet than anyone ever dreamed, and will no doubt continue to surprise us down to the last minute,” said Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist.
Photo: Visualization of Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere. Credit: ESA/C.Carreau