Thanks, Venus Express!
After eight years of honorable service, the European Space Agency probe concludes its research around Venus. Giuseppe Piccioni (INAF), “the many and important scientific results obtained on an understanding of the “twin” planet of the Earth are now part of the history of science and space exploration. The Venus Express mission is now internationally regarded as a solid reference for Venusian science.” For eight years it has been our remote outpost to study Venus. Since arriving to the planet, on 11 April 2006, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe has collected relentlessly with its tools a multitude of data that today allow us to have a much more detailed understanding of the planet, its atmosphere and the environment surrounding it.
The INAF is involved, with the financial support of the SIA, the instruments on board Venus Express: directly with VIRTIS (a hyperspectral infrared room) and PFS (a spectrometer), with an important participation of ASPERA-4 (dedicated to the study of the plasma). Similar tools had already been developed by Italy for the European Mars Express and Rosetta missions and have therefore contributed, thanks to changes contained in their projects, to speed up the process of the proposal for the Venus Express development and realization and at the same time help to cut costs. Eight years of full operation indeed, that went far beyond the most optimistic expectations indicated by the initial program of the mission, which had been concentrated in just 500 days. And that instead has been extended by six times. Between May and July, the ESA mission team, aware that the probe was exhausting its stocks of fuel needed for the maneuvers to maintain the right orbit around the planet, has implemented a bold maneuver that led to lower Venus Express progressively its relative trajectory to the surface of Venus, up to ‘touch it’ quota limit of 130 km and even closer to the lower layers of its dense and inhospitable atmosphere. And just in the ascent phase, the problems have emerged: Venus Express has failed to carry forward the planned orbit, probably due to the fuel tank of his rockets that could not maneuver them. A hypothesis reinforced by the loss of control of the rotation of the spacecraft, which from November 28 has thus begun to send data to Earth in fits and starts. Needless to say, ESA flight engineers have tried all those days to put on Venus Express to the right trajectory, but they officially raise the white flag and shall close its – and our – wonderful Venusian adventure. “It was inevitable, and certainly we expected. Although they were making, just for luck, the most optimistic estimates of the residual fuel left on board the probe, these forecasts were nearing the end of its life and with it the end of the operational mission”, tells Giuseppe Piccioni, principal investigator of VIRTIS on board Venus Express. Yet none of us, that in recent years we have been part of a wonderful team as that of Venus Express and all other instruments on board, has reason to be sad. Not At All.
We “squeezed” by far and wide the probe with all the tools on board to have really the best in terms of scientific return. The many and important scientific results obtained on an understanding of the “twin” planet are now part of the history of science and space exploration. Certainly our work is not yet finished and, although in a few weeks our jewel will end gloriously his mission in a final plunge into the atmosphere of Venus, its “soul” or the many data and results produced will continue for many more years to come to produce scientific results of primary importance. The Venus Express mission is now internationally regarded as a solid reference for Venusian science and a starting point for future desirable explorations. Not to be outdone, it has certainly helped to renew international interest for the “forgotten” planet and a desirable objective space mission to various countries.