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Venus Express: Waltzing with a fiery lady



The vulcano Maat Mons on our neighbor planet towers at a height of 8000 meters.
Picture by NASA/JPL

A spacecraft having a lot of Austrian technology on board is on its way to Venus to solve some of her mysteries. The "lady" has some really strange habits.

The delayed start of the European spacecraft "Venus Express" was finally successful last week. Dr. Rudolf Schmidt, Austrian member of the European Space Agency (ESA), who led the preparations for the expedition to Venus and was also responsible for the successful "Mars-Express", is relieved: "Actually I wanted the launch to be on Austria's National Holiday but there were some delays. Now the spacecraft is on target for the Venus and we are hoping for exciting research results." Although Venus is twice as close to the Earth as Mars, on which scientists think there might be some form of life, Venus is a very inaccessible diva with very extravagant details.

The probe Venus Express on top of its russian Fregatte transporter rocket
Picture by ESA

For example, it is the only planet of our solar system that doesn't rotate clockwise but counterclockwise. That means that the sun rises in the West. Although Venus is as old as the Earth (approximately 4 million years), it tries to hide its true age just like some high society ladies do. The surface of "Madame V" is "lifted" regularly because of heavy volcanic eruptions. The planet's surface explored on more than 20 missions is no older than "juvenescent" 500 million years. As a result of the volcanic eruptions no wrinkle and no dimple are found on the planet's surface.

Our neighboring planet is also a very impressive demonstration of what a bad greenhouse effect can do: the atmosphere consists for 90% of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas. The temperature on the planet's surface is about 450°C -hotter than any pizza oven. The "air pressure" is comparable to the one we have at the bottom of the ocean at a depth of 900 meters.

In the eighties the landing robots of the Russian "Venera" managed to survive about 60 minutes in this hell. However they could collect some very interesting data and send amazing pictures back to the Earth (look at the big picture). Therefore "Venus Express" will keep a safe distance of at least 250 kilometers and due to Austrian isolation technology will be able to bear temperatures up to 200°C.

An Austrian team from Graz spent 12.000 working hours constructing and building the magnetometer of the Venus Satellite.
Picture by Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften

Dr. Werner Magnes who was responsible for the construction of a magnetometer at the Academy of Sciences in Graz: "Venus is struck by particles of the sun (solar wind) just like the Earth. The Earth is protected by its strong magnetic field, Venus however only has a weak one. Our device and the particle detector we co-developed will help us find out how Venus handles those constant particle attacks. And what will happen if our magnetic field gets weaker just like times before."

The "Venus Express" will witness the inapproachable lady waltz to the left for 500 days starting from April 2006 and hopefully expose some of her secrets...


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© A report by Tobias Micke (20-11-05) – Contact