Credit: ESA

For the last eight years, the European Space Agency has operated the Venus Express as it has orbited our hellish neighbor. The probe has been invaluable in helping us study and understand the Venusian atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s also nearing the end of its life. The Venus Express is almost out of fuel. The probe finished it’s scientific mission on May 15th, which basically means it had done everything the European Space Agency (ESA) had planned for it. Now, while it still has a little life left in it, scientists are able to do some more risky things – like taking a quick plunge into the atmosphere.

In case you don’t know, Venus isn’t exactly the best spot for a vacation, a pit stop, or really anything at all. The surface is hot enough to melt and burn pretty much everything you care about. After a lot of effort, the Russians are the only country who have successfully sent vessels into the Venusian atmosphere, but they didn’t last very long. Well, in May the Venus Express dived further into Venus’ atmosphere since the Vega missions in 1985 launched by the Soviets.

The ESA probe dived to a low point of 129 km (80 miles) above the surface. For some comparison, that is about a third of the distance at which the International Space Station orbits Earth. Fortunately, the probe survived and will live to science another day.

As Håkan Svedhem, the lead scientist on the ESA’s Venus Express project, said, “We have explored uncharted territory, diving deeper into the atmosphere than ever before. We’ve measured the effects of atmospheric drag on the spacecraft, which will teach us how the density of the atmosphere varies on local and global scales.”

Credit: ESA – AOES Medialab

The Venus Express found the atmosphere’s density increased by a factor of one thousand during the decent between 160 km to 130 km (100 to 80 mi). During the same decent time, the solar panels heated to 100+ degrees Celsius (212+degrees Fahrenheit) — that, for the record, is the point at which water boils. All of the data collected during the Venus Express’s time in the atmosphere will help us plan future missions to Earth’s evil sister.

Now, the Venus Express has been moved to a higher orbit. Eventually, when the fuel runs out, the probe will start a final decent towards the planet where it’ll eventually crash and be reduced to ash. Only, it’s safe to say no Phoenix will rise from said ashes.


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