Cruising to Venus, and a Space History Update

First, a little space history that I didn’t catch the first time around: 35 years ago this week, the Soviet Union sent two missions to Venus from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.


(Venera lander, or “descent craft.” Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The first of the two, Venera 11, consisted of a flyby platform and a lander (“descent craft”), and launched on September 9, 1978. The second, Venera 12, also consisted of a flyby platform and a lander, and launched on September 14th. Venera 12’s course got it to Venus four days ahead of Venera 11: the Venera 12 lander reached the surface of Venus on December 21, 1978, and the Venera 11 lander followed on Christmas day.

And to follow up on one of my earliest space history posts which noted the launch, 20 years ago today, of the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-51: 5 years ago when I wrote that entry, I had no idea that a little over a year later I would meet one of the STS-51 astronauts, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., at a NASA Industry-Education Forum. He was a very pleasant fellow, and well met.

Life can be weird and wonderful.

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Pioneer Venus Multiprobe Mission

Thirty-five years ago today — August 8, 1978 — a US mission to Venus, featuring four separate probes, launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas Centaur rocket.


(Artist’s conception of one of the probes descending toward the surface of Venus. NASA image.)

The Pioneer Venus Multiprobe Bus carried the four probes on the 123-day journey to Venus. On November 16, the Bus released the Large Probe and on the 20th it released the three small probes, which were designated Day, Night, and North, according to their entry into the Venusian atmosphere.

Two Small Probes entered on the nightside, and one Small Probe and the Large Probe entered on the dayside of the planet. The spacecraft was spin-stabilized. The Large Probe took 1-1/2 h to descend through the atmosphere, while the three smaller probes reached the surface of the planet 75 min after entry…. The Probes stopped transmitting temperature data about 15 km above the surface of Venus, but two Probes survived on the surface and transmitted other data for a matter of seconds to minutes.

The Bus itself acted as a fifth probe, though it was not intended to get near the surface. It

was targeted to enter the Venusian atmosphere at a shallow entry angle and transmit data to Earth until [it] was destroyed by the heat of atmospheric friction during its descent…. [It] ceased transmitting data at an altitude of about 165 km.

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Venera 16

Thirty years ago today — June 7, 1983, UTC — the USSR launched the second of the paired Venera 15 and 16 orbiters from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Proton K booster.


(Venera 15/16 model. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Like its identical sister ship, Venera 16 used a side-scanning synthetic aperture radar to study the surface of Venus. Venera 16 was launched a few days after Venera 15, and the two spacecraft entered orbit around Venus a day apart in October 1983. Their mapping mission lasted until July 1984.

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Last Shuttle-Mir Flight, and Two Planetary Missions

Fifteen years ago today — June 2, 1988 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center on the final Shuttle/Mir mission.


(STS-91 rolling out to the launch complex. NASA image.)

STS-91 astronauts Charles J. Precourt, Dominic L. Pudwill Gorie, Wendy B. Lawrence, Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, and Janet L. Kavandi, along with Russian cosmonaut Valery Victorovitch Ryumin, docked with the Mir space station on June 4th, marking the ninth time a shuttle had docked with the Russian station (but the first for Discovery). They transferred water and other supplies to the station, conducted a series of experiments, and returned astronaut Andrew Thomas to Earth after he spent 130 days on Mir.

In other space history …

On this date 30 years ago, the Venera 15 radar mapping spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket. Its sister ship, Venera 16, launched a few days later. Venera 15 entered orbit around Venus on October 10, 1983, and operated until July 1984.

And 10 years ago today, the European Space Agency launched the Mars Express mission on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket out of Baikonur. The spacecraft arrived at Mars in December 2003 and released the “Beagle 2” lander, which unfortunately was lost. Mars Express itself continues to study the red planet from orbit.

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For anyone who cares, today’s space history post was delayed because the National Space Science Data Center’s catalog of spacecraft data has been balky lately.

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First Manned Skylab Mission, and Magellan Aerobraking

Forty years ago today — May 25, 1973 — a Saturn 1B rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying the first crew to inhabit the Skylab space station.


(Artist’s cutaway illustration of Skylab, from 1972. NASA image.)

The Skylab 2 mission placed astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, and Dr. Joseph P. Kerwin aboard the station for just under a month.

The astronauts had to make substantial repairs of launch damage to make the station habitable, beginning with deploying and attaching a sunshade — which they dubbed a “parasol” — to keep the interior cool. They also had to release one solar array that had become stuck during deployment. Once the repair work was done, “the crew conducted solar astronomy and Earth resources experiments, medical studies, and five student experiments” over the course of their 28-day stay.

The crew returned to Earth on June 22, 1973. You can read more on this Skylab mission page or this Skylab 2 page.

In other space history, on this date 20 years ago, the Magellan radar-mapping spacecraft began a 70-day aerobraking maneuver to circularize its orbit around Venus. Magellan was the first spacecraft to use aerobraking, and by doing so saved fuel for future maneuvers.

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Editor’s Note: While I’m on holiday over the next week, Space history items may be late, combined in odd ways, or even nonexistent. Sorry for any inconvenience. (Sort-of sorry, that is.)

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Pioneer Venus

Thirty-five years ago today — May 20, 1978 — Pioneer Venus launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas Centaur rocket.


(Artist’s conception of the Pioneer Venus Orbiter. NASA image.)

The Pioneer Venus Orbiter was designed to study Venusian from orbit, and was followed about three months later by a second spacecraft, the “Multiprobe,” which carried small probes to be dropped into the Venusian atmosphere.

The Orbiter arrived at Venus on December 4, 1978, and continued operating until its fuel ran out, it dropped out of orbit, and burned up in October 1992. During its operational life, the Orbiter observed Comet Halley when it was not visible from Earth, became the first spacecraft to map the surface of Venus, and

measured the detailed structure of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Venus, investigated the interaction of the solar wind with the ionosphere and the magnetic field in the vicinity of Venus, determined the characteristics of the atmosphere and surface of Venus on a planetary scale, determined the planet’s gravitational field harmonics from perturbations of the spacecraft orbit, and detected gamma-ray bursts.

You can read more on this Pioneer Venus page and also on this overview page.

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One Space Launch, One Space Landing

Fifty years ago today — October 18, 1962 — Ranger 5 was launched from Cape Canaveral on its mission to the Moon.


(Ranger 5. NASA image.)

Ranger 5 launched atop an Atlas Agena rocket, but unfortunately it did not complete its mission. It was intended primarily to “transmit pictures of the lunar surface to Earth stations during a period of 10 minutes of flight prior to impacting on the Moon, to rough-land a seismometer capsule on the Moon,” and to complete other objectives, but

Due to an unknown malfunction after injection into lunar trajectory from Earth parking orbit, the spacecraft failed to receive power. The batteries ran down after 8 hours, 44 minutes, rendering the spacecraft inoperable. Ranger 5 missed the Moon by 725 km. It is now in a heliocentric orbit.

In more successful space history, on this date 45 years ago, the Soviet Union’s Venera 4 landed on Venus.

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An Interplanetary Mariner Sets Sail

Fifty years ago today — August 27, 1962 — an Atlas Agena launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying the Mariner 2 spacecraft toward a rendezvous with the planet Venus.


(Mariner 2. NASA image.)

Mariner 2 passed Venus on December 14, 1962, becoming the first spacecraft to successfully perform a planetary flyby.

Mariner 2 was a backup for the Mariner 1 mission which failed shortly after launch to Venus. The objective of the Mariner 2 mission was to fly by Venus and return data on the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic field, charged particle environment, and mass. It also made measurements of the interplanetary medium during its cruise to Venus and after the flyby.

In other space history, on this date 35 years ago, the Italian communications and scientific satellite Sirio A was launched from Cape Canaveral by Delta rocket.

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For Want of a Hyphen, the Spacecraft Was Lost

Fifty years ago today — July 22, 1962 — an Atlas Agena rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying the Mariner 1 spacecraft.


(Artist’s conception of Mariner 1. NASA image.)

Mariner 1 was intended to fly by the planet Venus. The flight was nominal

until an unscheduled yaw-lift (northeast) maneuver was detected by the range safety officer. Faulty application of the guidance commands made steering impossible and were directing the spacecraft towards a crash, possibly in the North Atlantic shipping lanes or in an inhabited area.

Range safety destroyed the vehicle 4 minutes and 53 seconds into the launch.

The launch failure investigation found two apparent causes. First, the “Atlas airborne beacon equipment” did not operate properly. In addition,

the omission of a hyphen in coded computer instructions in the data-editing program allowed transmission of incorrect guidance signals to the spacecraft. During the periods the airborne beacon was inoperative the omission of the hyphen in the data-editing program caused the computer to incorrectly accept the sweep frequency of the ground receiver as it sought the vehicle beacon signal and combined this data with the tracking data sent to the remaining guidance computation. This caused the computer to swing automatically into a series of unnecessary course corrections with erroneous steering commands which finally threw the spacecraft off course.

Anyone who has done any computer coding knows how critical even a single character can be. In this case, it cost an entire spacecraft. The Venus flyby would have to wait.

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Overhauled Spacecraft Sent to Venus

Forty-five years ago today — June 14, 1967 — Mariner 5 launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas Agena rocket.


(Mariner 5. NASA image.)

Mariner 5 was originally built as a backup for the Mariner 4 mission to Mars, but was refurbished and sent to Venus instead.

Mariner 5 flew by Venus on October 19, 1967, passing about 4,000 km from the yellow planet. Instruments on the spacecraft “measured both interplanetary and Venusian magnetic fields, charged particles, and plasmas, as well as the radio refractivity and UV emissions of the Venusian atmosphere.”

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