By MELISSA EDDY, Associated Press Writer
A European spacecraft left Earth orbit Wednesday on a five-month, 220
million-mile journey to Venus, an exploratory mission that could help
spur a new space race.
The European Space Agency said the unmanned Venus Express lifted off
from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and mission control in
Darmstadt activated the probe's instruments and immediately picked up
a signal to hearty applause in the observation room.
The Europeans then received another signal -- a congratulatory note
from the Pasadena, Calif.,-based Planetary Society, which had
monitored the launch from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
The $260 million spacecraft will take 163 days to get to Earth's
nearest planetary neighbor, where it will drop into orbit and explore
the hot, dense atmosphere of Venus.
"The mission is an outstanding success," Gaele Winters, director of
ESA's operations in Darmstadt, told reporters. "We had a perfect
launch, the instruments are switched on, the solar panels are
deployed, everything is working."
The Venus mission is the latest sign that competition in space is
heating up even as NASA is reassessing its own exploration plans.
NASA is cutting some of its programs to focus resources on developing
a replacement for the space shuttle.
The space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 caused NASA to ground its
fleet for more than two years. Flights resumed in July with the
Discovery, but the dangerous loss of a chunk of its insulation during
launch has put future missions on hold until at least May, and
possibly even next summer. NASA plans 18 more shuttle flights to the
international space station and possibly one to the Hubble Space
Telescope before the fleet is retired in 2010.
"NASA has really dominated in planetary science and missions for the
last 40 years," having seen off the challenge from the former Soviet
Union, said Spas Baradash of the Swedish Institute of Space
Physics. "But now Europe is catching up."
Last month, two Chinese astronauts spent five days in orbit last month
on that country's second manned mission.
Japan and India also are ramping up their programs, and despite close
cooperation between scientists and agencies, "maybe we are witnessing
the beginning of a new space race," said Baradash, who worked on the
instruments aboard Venus Express.
David Southwood, ESA's scientific director, said the Venus mission
"once again illustrates Europe's determination to explore the
different bodies in our solar system."
European scientists plan to apply next month for funding for new ESA
missions to Mars and the moon.
Venus Express follows ESA's successful Mars Express, launched in
2003. It is Europe's first mission to Venus, which is sometimes
visible at sunrise or sunset along the horizon.
The Venus mission aims to explore the planet's atmosphere,
concentrating on its greenhouse effect and the hurricane force winds
that constantly encircle it at high altitudes.
There have been roughly 20 U.S. and Soviet missions to Venus since the
1960s, the last being NASA's Magellan, which completed more than
15,000 orbits between 1990 and 1994. Using radar, Magellan mapped
virtually its entire surface, revealing towering volcanoes, gigantic
rifts and crisp-edged craters.
The Venus Express' seven instruments, including a special camera as
well as a spectrometer to measure temperatures and analyze the
atmosphere, will try to determine whether the planet's volcanoes are
active. It also will examine how a world so similar to Earth could
have evolved so differently.
"Venus is still a big mystery," said Gerhard Schwehm, head of
planetary missions at ESA.
In the next three days, mission controllers will continue testing the
probe's instruments. It is expected to reach Venus in April, when it
will slow down to enter the planet's orbit. It will begin the initial
stages of gathering data in June.
"We hope to see the first results in early July," said Schwehm, adding
that the probe will remain active for more than a year.
Venus and Earth are alike in that they share similar mass and
density. Both have inner cores of rock and are believed to have been
formed at roughly the same time.
However, they have vastly different atmospheres, with Venus' composed
almost entirely of carbon dioxide and very little water vapor. It also
has the hottest surface of all the planets in the solar system.
Associated Press Writer Stephen Graham contributed to this report from
On the Net:
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
More Associated Press reports available at: