Europe heads to Venus

Posted: November 7, 2002

Artist's impression of Venus Express orbiting Venus. Credit: ESA/Medialab
Officials in charge of the European Space Agency's science programs have finally fully approved development of Venus Express, a newly added mission to the agency's ambitious plans over the coming decade.

The approval came when Italy, the single abstaining ESA member state after a meeting in July, agreed to fund their part of the scientific payload for Venus Express.

The meeting in July ended with a preliminary go-ahead for Venus Express, and work on the project began soon after. But Italy did not confirm their participation in the mission, which officials said could have brought Venus Express to a halt because space science is a mandatory program of ESA.

Scheduling was the next problem on the minds of program officials, with a launch in November 2005 dictated by the correct positioning of Earth and Venus.

Managers gave Italy a deadline of October to make a decision on whether to take part, and the set date came and went with still no agreement. However, negotiations between ESA managers and the Italian Space Agency formed a sound financial plan that allows Italy to contribute.

"I'm extremely proud that the SPC (Science Program Committee) managed to bring things together. Now we can clearly say to the scientists and industry: go to work to go to Venus," said Professor David Southwood, ESA Science Director.

With Venus Express now officially in the mission backlog, ESA is now the only organization in the world currently planning to visit all four of the solar system's inner planets.

Venus Express will depart Earth in about three years, possibly aboard a Soyuz-Fregat rocket launched from Kazakhstan.

The saga of Venus Express dates back to early 2001 when ESA released a call for ideas to re-use the design and teams for Mars Express, a mission to the red planet scheduled for liftoff next June.

Nine varied proposals were received that required little modification to the platform and manufacturing and processing techniques, and Venus Express was chosen for possible implementation in late 2001.

The project then faced the first of several problems when ESA member states decided to decrease the science program's budget, thereby making the extra funding for Venus Express harder to obtain. Last May, officials finally seemed to have pulled the plug on the short-lived concept.

But a new lease on life was given to the mission in June when the ESA Council met and reviewed the budgetary and development issues with Venus Express. When a favorable outcome was released, the ESA science program changed their position to again fully support the project.

The idea to re-use industrial teams, hardware, and designs from mission to mission is not restricted to just Venus Express. Other projects in ESA's future also take advantage of this concept in order to reduce total program development and operations cost. Manufacturing is also eased because of the experience base among the workers.

Once in orbit around Venus, the spacecraft will use its array of instruments carried over from Mars Express and ESA's Rosetta comet-chaser mission to study the environment and conditions on the planet from the surface to high in the atmosphere.

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