Probing the Venusian Atmosphere

Forty-five years ago today — June 12, 1967 — the Soviet Union launched Venera 4 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Venera 4. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Venera 4 was designed to conduct “direct atmospheric studies” of Venus.

On October 18, 1967, the spacecraft entered the Venusian atmosphere and released two thermometers, a barometer, a radio altimeter, and atmospheric density gauge, 11 gas analyzers, and two radio transmitters operating in the DM waveband. The main bus, which had carried the capsule to Venus, carried a magnetometer, cosmic ray detectors, hydrogen and oxygen indicators, and charged particle traps. Signals were returned by the spacecraft, which braked and then deployed a parachute system after entering the Venusian atmosphere, until it reached an altitude of 24.96 km.

The Venera 4 Wikipedia page includes some fascinating details about the capsule’s design and test regimen, and notes that Venera 4 successfully measured Venus’s atmosphere to be made up of 90-93% carbon dioxide, 0.4-0.8% oxygen, 7% nitrogen and 0.1-1.6% water vapor.

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First Spacecraft on Venus

(That is, the first human spacecraft … the aliens may have been there before us.)

(Venera-3 spacecraft. NASA image.)

Forty-five years ago today — March 1, 1966 — the Venera-3 spacecraft crash-landed on Venus. It had been launched November 16, 1965, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and became the first spacecraft to reach the Venusian surface.

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Venus and Eros in Space History

Fifty years ago today — February 12, 1961 — the Soviet Union launched the Venera-1 probe from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Venera-1. Image from NASA’s National Space Science Data Center.)

Venera-1, or the “Venus-1 Automatic Interplanetary Station,” was the first spacecraft to fly by Venus. Even though telemetry contact with the spacecraft was lost on March 4th, making the mid-course corrections impossible, around May 19th Venera-1 flew within 100,000 km (62,000 mi) of the cloud-shrouded planet.

From Venus to Eros …

Forty years later, on this date in 2001, the NEAR spacecraft — i.e., the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft — touched down successfully on the asteroid Eros (even though the vehicle was not designed as a lander). On its way to touchdown, NEAR sent back high-resolution close-up images of the asteroid’s surface.

The Roman goddess of love, and the Greek god of love — a good day in space history for this Valentine’s weekend!

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Venus Express, and Frogs in Space

Five years ago today — November 9, 2005 — the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Artist’s conception of lightning on Venus. European Space Agency image by J. Whatmore, from the ESA Images Multimedia Gallery.)

Venus Express launched atop a Soyuz-Fregat rocket; it arrived at its destination in April 2006. Its mission to study the Venusian atmosphere is currently scheduled to continue through 2012.

In other space history, 40 years ago today the U.S. launched the Orbiting Frog Otolith (OFO-A) spacecraft on a Scout rocket out of Wallops Island, Virginia. True to its name, the spacecraft carried two bullfrogs into orbit to study the effects of weightlessness on the otolith, i.e., the part of the inner ear that senses gravity and linear acceleration.

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Venus Lander Launched, Four Decades Ago

Forty years ago today — August 17, 1970 — the USSR launched the Venera-7 mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Venera-7 capsule. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Venera-7 landed on Venus on December 15, 1970, and was “the first man-made object to return data after landing on another planet.”

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Of X-Rays and Photons: Two Japanese Space Missions

Five years ago today — July 10, 2005 — the Japanese Suzaku spacecraft launched from the Uchinoura Space Center in Japan.

Also known as Astro-E2, Suzaku included U.S.-built X-ray telescopes from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Suzaku mission helped complete the picture we have of the universe in the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Here’s the GSFC page about their part of the mission.

And yesterday another Japanese mission achieved the largest-ever acceleration of a spacecraft by impingement of photons on a solar sail.

(Image of the Ikaros solar sail, taken from the separation camera. From the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) June 28 press release.)

The Ikaros demonstrator had been launched on May 20th along with the Venus-bound Akatsuki probe, with the express purpose of testing solar sail technology. Here’s the Spaceflight Now report on its remarkable accomplishment.

The Japanese are planning a larger-scale solar sail mission for later this decade.

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Venera-9 and -10, Twin Missions to Venus

Thirty-five years ago today — June 8, 1975 — the Soviet Union launched the Venera-9 mission to Venus. Venera-9 was the first mission to successfully return an image of the surface of Venus; specifically, the rocky terrain in the immediate vicinity of the lander.

(Photographs of the surface of Venus: top, from Venera-9, and bottom from Venera-10. From

A Proton rocket out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome sent the Venera-9 probe on its way. Its sister ship Venera-10 launched six days later, on June 14th. Each carried an orbiter section and a lander.

The Venera-9 lander descended successfully to the surface on October 22, 1975, and operated for nearly an hour before the heat (485 degrees Celsius) and pressure (90 atmospheres) destroyed it. The Venera-10 lander followed its sister to the surface on October 25, 1975, and landed over 2000 km away from the Venera-9 landing site. Venera-10 operated for over an hour before it, too, succumbed to the harsh Venusian environment.

If only they had found the tropical paradise envisioned by classic science fiction writers, instead of fields of heat-blasted rocks, we might have developed more motivation to get out there and explore….

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Another Space Pioneer, a Half Century Past

Fifty years ago today — March 11, 1960 — the Pioneer-5 space probe launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Thor-Able rocket.

(Pioneer-5 with its solar power panels extended. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Pioneer-5 was one of the first deep space missions, and achieved a heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit between Earth and Venus. Scientists maintained contact with the vehicle for 106 days and received signals from a distance of 36.2 million kilometers (22.5 million miles), the farthest distance achieved at that time in the space race. Telemetry received from Pioneer-5 confirmed the existence of the interplanetary magnetic field, which until then had been just theoretical.

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Passing By Venus — We Were in the Neighborhood …

Twenty years ago today — February 9, 1990* — the Galileo spacecraft flew by Venus in a course-adjustment maneuver on its way to Jupiter. The probe passed about 10,000 miles (16,000 km) above our sister planet.

(Venus images from the Galileo spacecraft, taken through violet and infrared filters. NASA image.)

The Venus flyby gave the mission team the chance to test out Galileo‘s cameras and instruments in preparation for its encounter with Jupiter. The “gravity-assist” of the spacecraft swinging around the planet boosted Galileo’s speed and set it on an intercept course with … Earth. Two similar maneuvers around our home planet would eventually place the spacecraft on course for its final destination.

Here’s the press release on the flyby, which is kind of interesting, and here’s a gallery of images from the encounter.

*February 9th on the West Coast, where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was controlling the mission; it was already February 10th on the East Coast. (If that matters to you.)

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