Venus Express Launch Successful, Orbit Expected in April

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PARIS — Europe’s Venus Express satellite is expected to enter orbit around the second planet from the sun in April to begin 16 months of observations in what officials say is the latest example of making maximum use of Europe’s limited space budget.

The 1,240-kilogram Venus Express spacecraft was launched Nov. 9 aboard a Russian Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Initial contact confirming the satellite’s health and solar-array deployment was made with the European Space Agency’s Esoc space operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, two hours after launch.

Following its initial in-space checkout, the satellite will be put into hibernation for the five-month voyage to Venus. Once there, it will need almost all of its fuel to perform a delicate breaking maneuver intended to place it in a highly elliptical orbit at an altitude of between 250 kilometers and 66,000 kilometers above Venus’ surface. A lower, more-circular orbit would have required more fuel than Venus Express carries.

European Space Agency (ESA) officials think the phrase “faster, better, cheaper” got a bad reputation in the late 1990s following several failed U.S. missions. But the label applies to Venus Express.

The satellite was originally proposed to ESA not by scientists, but by EADS Astrium officials who said they could build a satellite based on the Mars Express orbiter for some other mission.

Three of Venus Express’ seven observing instruments were originally built as spares for Mars Express. Two others were adapted from ESA’s Rosetta comet-chaser satellite, and just two were designed specifically for Venus Express.

The entire Venus Express mission is budgeted at 220 million euros ($264 million), including 82.4 million euros for the EADS Astrium satellite platform and integration and 37 million euros for the Soyuz launch, provided by the French-Russian Starsem S.A. company. The remaining funds paid for the seven instruments, flight operations and ESA project management.

The EADS Astrium contract was signed in October 2002, with the satellite ready for launch three years later. The principal modification to the EADS Astrium platform used for Mars Express relates to the solar arrays. They are interlaced with aluminum strips to reflect the extreme heat resulting from Venus’ proximity to the sun, and the fact that the Venus surface is highly reflective of the sun’s heat.

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