Daniel Scuka, European Space Agency
Part of the show Coral Reefs and Creatures of the Deep Sea
Phil - Now we're going to find out about Venus Express, which went into orbit around Earth's closest neighbour about two weeks ago. The European Space Agency spacecraft will look at the surface and atmosphere of Venus. Daniel Scuka from the European Space Agency was in the main control room as this crucial manoeuvre was completed. He spoke to some of the key players to find out their reactions.
Daniel - This past Tuesday April 11th engineers and scientists from the European Space Agency crowded into the dimly lit main control room at ESOC, ESA's Space Operations Centre in Germany to monitor the entry of Venus Express into orbit around the hot house planet. Positive confirmation that the spacecraft had successfully fired its main engine to slow into orbit came at 11.12am central European summer time, when ESOC mission controllers re - established the radiotelemetry link with Venus Express after a series of critical and complex manoeuvres. The dramatic activity began just after 8am, when Venus Express automatically swung itself into a slew manoeuvre to point its main engine in the direction of travel. After firing its smaller thrusters, the main engine fired for 50 minutes, reducing the spacecraft's velocity so that Venus's gravity could pull it down into the first capture orbit. You could literally feel the tension in ESA's main control room as the spacecraft dropped behind Venus at 9.45am as scheduled, causing a communications black out. Venus blocked the line of sight path between the spacecraft and the Earth. For a very long 12 minutes, radio contact was not available. Low bandwidth radio contact was re-established at 9.45am as Venus Express emerged from behind Venus, and full telemetry was back after just over an hour later. Immediately after the spacecraft's signal had been reacquired, I spoke with project manager Don McCoy, in ESOC's main control room.
Don - It went absolutely normally, so in that sense it's been an excellent mission. Given that sometimes machines don't work the way you want them to, that's a surprise. But it was very nominal, which is an indication that the satellite was very well built and well tested. The work of the crews here has been absolutely cracking, so the whole thing has worked very well.
Daniel - I also spoke with the engineer most responsible for making the manoeuvre a success: Flight Director Manfred Vorhaut.
Manfred - I think that's it's outstanding what has been delivered here by a joint effort from industry, ESTEC and ESOC and I do not want to address anybody in particular. I may say a few words about the navigators because they made sure that we aligned with Venus in the proper corridor, and finally, we did it and I'm more than happy I can tell you.
Daniel - Venus Express mission controllers now enter an intensive orbit entry period with additional engine firings and manoeuvres designed to lower the spacecraft into the final 24 hour operational orbit. Scientists will then have to wait until June 4th for the spacecraft and its instruments to be commissioned and verified and to kick off formal science investigations around the hot house planet. Venus Express is ESA's first mission to Venus and the first mission at all since 1994. For the European Space Agency, I'm Daniel Scuka reporting from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
Phil - That was Daniel Scuka who was there for the crucial manoeuvre on April 11th.
Chris - So Phil, what are they going to be looking at now that the mission's established itself? What sorts of things will they be investigating?
Phil - Well Venus is a really interesting place but somewhere we haven't been to very much. It's covered in a layer of clouds, so we really can't see right down to the surface. There were missions previously that actually landed on the surface, but because Venus is covered with a really nasty acid rain and it's an intense atmospheric pressure down on the surface, they didn't last very long. We didn't get huge amount of data from them. We've also have probes going in making radar maps of the surface to try and get the altitude of the surface. But this mission is really going to increase our knowledge of what's going on on the surface and in the atmosphere of Venus. It's going to be a really interesting mission to watch out for.