ESA’s Venus Express has ended its eight-year mission after far exceeding its planned life. The spacecraft exhausted its propellant during a series of thruster burns to raise its orbit following the low-altitude aerobraking earlier this year.
Since its arrival at Venus in 2006, Venus Express had been on an elliptical 24‑hour orbit, traveling 66 000 km above the south pole at its furthest point and to within 200 km over the north pole on its closest approach, conducting a detailed study of the planet and its atmosphere.
However, after eight years in orbit and with propellant for its propulsion system running low, Venus Express was tasked in mid-2014 with a daring aerobraking campaign, during which it dipped progressively lower into the atmosphere on its closest approaches to the planet.
Normally, the spacecraft would perform routine thruster burns to ensure that it did not come too close to Venus and risk being lost in the atmosphere. But this unique adventure was aimed at achieving the opposite, namely reducing the altitude and allowing an exploration of previously uncharted regions of the atmosphere.
When travelling above the clouds, airplane passengers sometimes witness a glory: a light phenomenon similar to a ring-shaped rainbow. Droplets in the clouds back-scattering the sunlight are responsible for this appearance. A team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen have now fully imaged a glory on Venus – and thus for the first time on a planet other than Earth. The data was obtained by ESA’s space probe Venus Express. The data imply that the sulfuric acid in Venus’ cloud tops could additionally contain pure sulfur or iron chloride – and may help solve one of the oldest mysteries of Venus research.
The veil of clouds surrounding Venus is as beautiful as it is hostile to life. Sulfuric acid constitutes their main component. Together with the planet’s dense atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide, this cloud cover causes Venus’ extreme greenhouse effect. Temperatures of more than 400 degrees Celsius are common on the planet’s surface. The exact composition of the creamy-yellow clouds is still unclear. Almost 90 years ago, ground-based observations had shown that these clouds “swallow” ultraviolet light of certain wavelengths. Sulfuric acid alone cannot be responsible for this effect.
As the closest planet to Earth, Venus is a relatively easy object to observe. However, many mysteries remain, not least the super-rotation of Venus’ atmosphere, which enables high altitude winds to circle the planet in only four days. Now images of cloud features sent back by ESA’s Venus Express orbiter have revealed that these remarkably rapid winds are becoming even faster.
Similar in size to Earth, Venus has an extremely dense, carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere and the planet’s surface is completely hidden by a blanket of bland, yellowish cloud. Only at ultraviolet wavelengths (and to a lesser extent in the infrared) do striking cloud streaks and individual cells emerge, due to the presence of some unknown UV absorber in the cloud deck.
By tracking the movements of these distinct cloud features, observers have been able to measure the super-hurricane-force winds that sweep around the planet at the cloud tops, some 70 km above the scorching volcanic plains.
ESA’s Venus Express has made unique observations of Venus during a period of reduced solar wind pressure, discovering that the planet’s ionosphere balloons out like a comet’s tail on its nightside. The ionosphere is a region of weakly electrically charged gas high above the main body of a planet’s atmosphere. Its shape and density are partly controlled by the internal magnetic field of the planet.
For Earth, which has a strong magnetic field, the ionosphere is relatively stable under a range of solar wind conditions. By comparison, Venus does not have its own internal magnetic field and relies instead on interactions with the solar wind to shape its ionosphere. The extent to which this shaping depends on the strength of the solar wind has been controversial, but new results from Venus Express reveal for the first time the effect of a very low solar wind pressure on the ionosphere of an unmagnetised planet.
As this significantly reduced solar wind hit Venus, Venus Express saw the planet’s ionosphere balloon outwards on the planet’s ‘downwind’ nightside, much like the shape of the ion tail seen streaming from a comet under similar conditions.
Six years of observations by ESA’s Venus Express have shown large changes in the sulphur dioxide content of the planet’s atmosphere, and one intriguing possible explanation is volcanic eruptions. The thick atmosphere of Venus contains over a million times as much sulphur dioxide as Earth’s, where almost all of the pungent, toxic gas is generated by volcanic activity.
Most of the sulphur dioxide on Venus is hidden below the planet’s dense upper cloud deck, because the gas is readily destroyed by sunlight. That means any sulphur dioxide detected in Venus’ upper atmosphere above the cloud deck must have been recently supplied from below.
A previous analysis of infrared radiation from the surface pointed to lava flows atop a volcano with a composition distinct from those of their surroundings, suggesting that the volcano had erupted in the planet’s recent past. Now, an analysis of sulphur dioxide concentration in the upper atmosphere over six years provides another clue.
ESA’s Venus Express and Proba-2 space missions, along with the international SOHO, Hinode, and Hubble spacecraft, are preparing to monitor Venus and the Sun during the transit of Earth’s sister planet during 5-6 June. ESA’s Venus Express is the only spacecraft orbiting Venus at the moment and while the transit is being watched from Earth, it too will use light from the Sun to study the planet’s atmosphere.
As sunlight filters through the atmosphere it reveals the concentration of different gas molecules at different altitudes.
Meanwhile, NASA/ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope will use the Moon as a giant mirror to capture diffuse, reflected sunlight: a small fraction of that light will have passed through the atmosphere of Venus en-route to the Moon.
This will test techniques aimed at measuring the atmospheres of Earth-sized rocky exoplanets that could potentially reveal traces of life on planets outside our Solar System.
Scientists and amateur astronomers around the world are preparing to observe the rare occurrence of Venus crossing the face of the Sun on 5-6 June, an event that will not be seen again for over a hundred years. The occasion also celebrates the first transit while there is a spacecraft orbiting the planet – ESA’s Venus Express.
ESA will be reporting live from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where the Venus Express science team will be discussing the latest scientific results from the mission while enjoying a unique view of the 2012 transit under the ’midnight Sun’.
A transit of Venus occurs only when Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth. Since the orbital plane of Venus is not exactly aligned with that of Earth, transits occur very rarely, in pairs eight years apart but separated by more than a century. The last transit was enjoyed in June 2004 but the next will not be seen until 2117. Venus transits are of great historical significance because they gave astronomers a way to measure the size of the Solar System.