November 9, 2005

Venus space probe searches for global warming clues

By Bernhard Winkler

DARMSTADT, Germany (Reuters) - Europe's first space probe
to Venus was launched on Wednesday on a mission that aims to
shed light on Earth's closest planetary neighbor and give
scientists clues about global warming.

From its Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, the European
Space Agency said the 1.3 ton "Venus Express" probe had taken
off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on board a Soyuz rocket at 0333
GMT on Wednesday -- after a two-week delay.

The Venus Express will travel through space for around 163
days. Once captured by Venus's gravity in April it will orbit
the planet and analyze its extreme greenhouse atmosphere and
dense cloud cover for about 500 days, scientists said.

"Naturally we're hoping for some surprises and to be in a
position to answer some of the open questions about Venus and
its atmosphere," said Ralf Jaumann, the project head.

Among the riddles the mission hopes to solve is why a
planet so similar to Earth in size, mass and composition has
evolved so differently over the last 4,600 million years.
Temperatures on Venus average 450 degrees Celsius.

There are theories that intense volcano activity could have
created an extreme greenhouse atmosphere that is responsible
for the current conditions on Venus, whose atmosphere is
largely comprised of carbon dioxide.

Some scientists have said it is possible there may once
have been life on Venus. They hope to obtain clues about
greenhouse conditions on Venus and whether any comparisons
about global warming on Earth can be drawn.

"It's a planet filled with secrets and is as old as the
Earth," said Mick Locher, a German space expert, in an
interview with N-24 television. "We're hoping to discover why
it got so hot on Venus and not Earth, its twin planet."

Atmospheric pressure is 90 times greater than on Earth and
no space probe that has gone into the planet's atmosphere has
survived for long, with a Russian device setting the record of
110 minutes before melting in the heat.

The "Venus Express" will orbit the planet's poles from a
distance of 250 to 66,000 km. Venus's days are the equivalent
of 243 Earth days, due to its slower rotation.

The planned launch on October 26 was delayed after
technicians discovered a contamination on the covering of the
probe's Russian-made Soyuz-Fregat launcher, but this proved

The Venus Express is essentially a slight variation on the
ESA's "Mars Express" probe, which has been providing
spectacular images of the red planet since the end of 2003.

A total of 25 companies from 14 European countries are
involved in the Venus Express, which cost 220 million euros
($259 million).