Science Interviews

Interview

Sat, 8th Apr 2006

Venus Express Prepares For Orbit Insertion

Dr Daniel Scuka, European Space Agency

Part of the show Forecasting Weather and Climate

Daniel - Later this week on Tuesday April 11th, the European Space Agency's Venus Express begins its critical orbit insertion manoeuvre designed to break the spacecraft and lower it neatly into a twenty four hour elliptical orbit around the hot house planet. While it sound easy, it's actually a challenging and fraught manoeuvre. The focus of activity that day will be the main control room or MCR at ESOC, ESA's Space Operations Centre in Germany. During a recent live training session, I met Mike McKay in the MCR. Mike is a veteran ESA flight director who has spent many hours on console in this room.

Mike - On the large screens in front of us we can see data such as the ground station status, where we are actually picking up the spacecraft and at what time, critical events will be displayed so that all the key members are focussed on the critical schedule of events that must occur for successful Venus insertion.

Daniel - Mike says the well equipped main control room enables the flight controllers work as a focussed team during critical events such as launch or orbit entry, and gives them the central facilities they need to communicate with support teams worldwide. I asked him to describe some of the high tech drama that takes place here when multi - million Euro missions are launched or manoeuvred deep in space.

Mike - As you can imagine in a room like this where you have to make the right decision in sometimes seconds to save a mission, emotions get very high. Flying a spacecraft to another planet and successfully putting it into orbit millions of kilometres from the Earth, that is really the high that you get in this room. There can also be disappointments. When you're training a team weeks or months in advance for an event like a launch and find at the last minute that there's something not quite right, we can get a delay for days or maybe even weeks and months, and that is sometimes hard to take.

Daniel - He describes what will happen here at 0819 GMT on the morning of April 11th when Venus Express fires its main engine to be captured into Venus orbit. Mission controllers will monitor the manoeuvre carefully via an S-band signal sent form the spacecraft.

Mike - Tracking that signal through the burn will allow us to see the changes in frequency of the signal that are caused by the spacecraft speeding up. So we can actually monitor indirectly that the burn is taking place. It really is the critical aspect of the operation for Venus orbit insertion to see the main engine has functioned correctly. It will then disappear behind Venus and we will have no signal. That will mean the excitement in here will be very intense, to see if after that period of eclipse behind Venus, will it pop out again, will we get a signal? So I can imagine here that the excitement is going to be very very intense on that day.

Daniel - On April the 11th, ESA will provide up the minute reports on Venus Express and Europe's arrival at Venus for what is shaping up to be one of the most significant science missions in the agency's history. For more news and information on the worldwide web, access www.esa.int. For the European Space Agency, I'm Daniel Scuka reporting from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

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