Venus probe blasts off

A European-built probe blasted into space today in a bid to explore Earth’s mysterious neighbour, Venus.

A European-built probe blasted into space today in a bid to explore Earth’s mysterious neighbour, Venus.

The Venus Express mission, the first probe to visit the planet in 15 years, was launched by a Russian rocket at 3.33am Irish time.

It set off on a five-month, 26 million mile journey in which scientists hope to find clues that will help in their understanding of climate change on Earth.

Mission controllers at Darmstadt, Germany, tracked the rocket’s ascent via radar and saw that the probe successfully separated from it, then went into orbit.

The European Space Agency craft will orbit Venus for about 500 Earth days, scanning its atmosphere and weather.

Venus is an example of what happens to a world gripped by runaway global warming. Its thick atmosphere, mainly composed of carbon dioxide, acts like a greenhouse to trap solar heat and raise surface temperatures to more than 460C.

Venus Express, which cost 150 million, was originally due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 26.

Lift-off had to be postponed after insulating material from inside the rocket was found to have contaminated the orbiter.

The probe was launched on a Soyuz rocket topped by a Fregat booster which will propel it on a direct course to Venus.

Venus is the closest planet to Earth, similar in size and mass, and only slightly closer to the Sun.

But in other respects the two planets could not be further apart.

As well as being hot enough to melt lead, the surface of Venus is crushed under an atmospheric pressure 90 times greater than the Earth’s.

Acid rain falls from sulphurous clouds on to a baked landscape of barren plains, rolling uplands and mountains, dotted with impact craters.

In the past, Venus has experienced enormous planet-wide volcanic eruptions with lava flows covering almost 90% of its surface. Scientists think local volcanic activity probably goes on all the time.

Venus Express uses technology already tested on the successful Mars Express mission.

Instruments on board the probe will peer right through the blanket of clouds to the planet’s surface.

Scientists also hope to study the mysterious hurricane-like vortices above the poles, and watch for signs of active volcanism.

Clues may be found from sulphuric acid and sulphur dioxide in the lower atmosphere, and shock waves sent through the clouds by “Venus-quakes”.

Scientists and engineers from a number of British institutions and companies have contributed to Venus Express.

They include teams from Oxford University, Imperial College London, University College London, Sheffield University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford.

Scientists from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Dorking, Surrey, are co-investigators for an instrument called Aspera which will probe molecules and energetic particles in the Venusian atmosphere.

Experts from Imperial College are to analyse data from Mag, the spacecraft’s magnetometer, which will measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field around Venus.

British industry has also played a part. The Stevenage-based company EADS Astrium built the propulsion system which will put the spacecraft in orbit around Venus, while SciSys, from Chippenham in Wiltshire, provided mission control systems.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, spacecraft launched by the former Soviet union led the way in Venus exploration.

After a number of early failures, during which three spacecraft were crushed by the planet’s atmosphere, the USSR landed a series of Venera probes on Venus.

In 1975, Venera 9 and 10 sent back the first black-and-white pictures of the planet’s hostile surface. Two later landers, Venera 13 and 14, returned the first colour views in 1982.

The last dedicated mission to Venus was Magellan, launched by the American space agency Nasa in 1990, which mapped the surface using radar.

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