May 23rd 2014 By Fires Stone
A European spacecraft will plunge into Venus’ thick atmosphere next month in a bold maneuver that may bring its lengthy and productive mission to a dramatic end.
The European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe, which has been circling Earth’s hellishly hot “sister planet” for eight years, is running low on fuel. So mission officials wrapped up routine science operations this week to begin preparing Venus Express for a deep dive into the planet’s fast-swirling air.
“We have performed previous short ‘aerodrag’ campaigns where we’ve skimmed the thin upper layers of the atmosphere at about 165 kilometers [103 miles], but we want to go deeper, perhaps as deep as 130 kilometers [81 miles], maybe even lower,” Venus Express mission manager Patrick Martin said in a statement. [Venus Express’ Upcoming Atmospheric Dive (Video)]
“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,” Martin added.
Venus Express will take temperature and pressure measurements and gather other science data during the dive, which is scheduled to take place from June 18 through July 11. But mission officials expect the “aerobraking” maneuver will have other benefits as well.
“The campaign also provides the opportunity to develop and practice the critical operations techniques required for aerobraking, an experience that will be precious for the preparation of future planetary missions that may require it operationally,” Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for Venus Express, said in a statement.