European Space Agency revives mission to Venus

Posted: July 17, 2002

Venus Express
An artist's concept of the Venus Express spacecraft. Credit: ESA/Medialab
After being shelved just two months ago, plans to send a European robotic probe to Venus have been given a new lease on life, but at least one more obstacle remains.

Dubbed Venus Express, the mission was revived on July 11 after European Space Agency Council chairman Alain Bensoussan ordered another review, which concluded that such a project was still possible despite earlier budgetary concerns.

But one problem standing in the way of full approval of Venus Express is the participation of Italy in the mission.

"Venus Express requires the commitment of all ESA member states due to space science being a mandatory program of our agency," ESA spokesperson Clovis De Matos told Spaceflight Now.

Italy has been given a deadline of October 15 to confirm their participation on the Venus Express mission, and the future of the mission depends on that nation's decision.

Venus Express can trace its history back to early 2001, when ESA asked the science community to propose ideas for possible missions that could re-use the industrial teams and the design set in place for the Mars Express mission, scheduled to launch to the red planet in June 2003. That requirement would keep the costs of the mission to a minimum, which is essential in today's budget environment.

ESA officials received nine broad-ranging proposals that fit the criteria in May. Following a series of reviews, Venus Express was selected for implementation in late 2001.

Venus Express requires a launch in November 2005 due to the positioning of Earth and Venus in relation to each other, which brought scheduling problems to the minds of managers.

But last November, ESA's member states opted to restrict the budget allocated to the ESA science directorate. Although Venus Express was still able to make it onto a modified list of ESA science missions following the budget cuts, officials decided in May that they could not begin mission preparations given the reduced funds and tight schedule.

"I did not like withdrawing it from our plans, but it was better not to start at all than to have to stop badly later," said ESA Director of Science, Professor David Southwood.

When the issue was brought up at an ESA Council meeting in June, chairman Alain Bensoussan of France wanted another review to evaluate the conceivability of Venus Express. The findings of the review made the ESA science committee reverse course to fully support the mission.

"The Venus Express mission has now taken a big step towards realization," Southwood said. "However, there is much work to do and we had to demand everyone has to be ready if it is to fly in time."

"If we can get Venus Express confirmed in the autumn, ESA will be the only space agency in the world with current plans to visit each planet in the inner solar system."

Plans call for Venus Express to study the entire environment of Venus using instruments developed as back-ups for ESA's Mars Express orbiter and Europe's Rosetta comet-chasing mission.

The launcher for the mission has not yet been decided upon, but the Soyuz-Fregat rocket is the most likely choice.

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