Five years since Venus Express’ launch
Airbus Defence and Space was prime contractor to the European Space Agency (ESA) for the design and development of Venus Express, the first European spacecraft to visit the planet Venus. It was launched on board a Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle, from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 9 November 2005.
After a five-month journey, it arrived at its destination orbit around Venus in April 2006. The mission around Venus – the solar system’s hottest planet in terms of structure, composition and dynamics and Earth’s closest neighbour – was designed to last two Venusian days (486 Earth days). An extremely successful mission, Venus Express has been granted an extension until at least 31 December 2012.
Analysing the prevailing conditions in the atmosphere and in the near environment of Venus is of crucial importance for the understanding of long-term climatic evolution processes on Earth. The Venus Express mission is carrying out a global investigation of the Venusian atmosphere in terms of structure, composition and dynamics up to an altitude of 250km. For this, it has seven scientific instruments: spectrometers, spectro-imagers and imagers covering a wavelength range from UV to thermal IR, along with a full plasma analyser.
Venus Express development started in late 2002 and Airbus Defence and Space prided itself on delivering a low-cost spacecraft, thanks to re-use of technology used on the Mars Express and Rosetta predecessors – also primed by Airbus Defence and Space. The spacecraft programme was three or four times less expensive than equivalent scientific space missions. Of the mission’s seven scientific instruments, six were based on the same designs used for Mars Express and Rosetta.
The Venus Express mission is providing fascinating data on Venus’ titanic weather system, which is ruled by still largely unexplained forces that whip up hurricane-force gales and generate double-eyed vortices over both the planet’s poles.
A final point of note is that when Venus Express does come to the end of its mission, it will be the first European spacecraft to trial the aero-braking technique – this is where atmospheric braking is used to lower a satellite’s orbit without using valuable on-board fuel.