After eight years in orbit, ESA’s Venus Express has completed routine science observations and is preparing for a daring plunge into the planet’s hostile atmosphere.
Venus Express was launched on a Soyuz-Fregat from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 9 November 2005, and arrived at Venus on 11 April 2006.
It has been orbiting Venus in an elliptical 24-hour loop that takes it from a distant 66,000 km over the south pole – affording incredible global views – to an altitude of around 250 km above the surface at the north pole, close to the top of the planet’s atmosphere.
With a suite of seven instruments, the spacecraft has provided a comprehensive study of the ionosphere, atmosphere and surface of Venus.
Venus has a surface temperature of over 450 degree Celsius, far hotter than a normal kitchen oven, and an extremely dense, choking mixture of noxious gases for an atmosphere. But from the mission’s infrared survey of the chemical composition of the rocky surface, researchers have learned that Venus might have once had a plate tectonics system like Earth, and even an ocean of water.