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NASA Facts Magellan Mission to Venus

NASA Facts Magellan Mission to Venus

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Published by Bob Andrepont
NASA Facts booklet on the Magellan mission to Venus.
NASA Facts booklet on the Magellan mission to Venus.

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Jan 02, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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NASA's Magellan spacecraft used a sophisticatedimaging radar to make the most highly detailed mapsof Venus ever captured during its four years in orbitaround Earth's sister planet from 1990 to 1994.After concluding its radar mapping, Magellanmade global maps of Venus's gravity field. Flightcontrollers also test-ed a new maneuver-ing technique calledaerobraking, whichuses a planet'satmosphere to slowor steer a spacecraft.Craters shown inthe radar imagesthat Magellan sentto Earth tell scien-tists that Venus'ssurface appears rela-tively young --resurfaced about500 million yearsago by widespreadvolcanic eruptions.The planet's presentharsh environmenthas persisted at leastsince then, with nofeatures detectedsuggesting the presence of oceans or lakes at any timein the planet's past.Scientists also found no evidence of plate tecton-ics, the movements of huge crustal masses on Earththat cause earthquakes and result in the drifting of continents over time spans of hundreds of millions of years.Magellan's mission ended with a dramatic plungeto the planet's surface, the first time an operatingplanetary spacecraft has ever been intentionallycrashed. Contact was lost with the spacecraft October12, 1994, at 10:02Universal Time(3:02 a.m. PacificDaylight Time).The purpose of themaneuver was forMagellan to gatherdata on Venus'satmosphere before itceased to functionduring its fierydescent.
Mission Overview
Magellan wasthe first planetaryspacecraft to belaunched by a spaceshuttle when it wascarried aloft by theshuttle Atlantis fromKennedy SpaceCenter in Florida onMay 4, 1989.Atlantis took Magellan into low Earth orbit, where itwas released from the shuttle's cargo bay. Asolid-fuel motor called the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) thenfired, sending Magellan on a 15-month cruise loopingaround the Sun 1-1/2 times before it arrived at Venus
Magellan Mission to Venus
National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
California Institute of TechnologyPasadena, CA91109
on August 10, 1990. Asolid-fuel motor on Magellanthen fired, placing the spacecraft in orbit aroundVenus.Magellan's initial orbit was highly elliptical, tak-ing it as close as 294 kilometers (182 miles) fromVenus and as far away as 8,543 kilometers (5,296miles). The orbit was a polar one, meaning that thespacecraft moved from south to north or vice versaduring each looping pass, flying over Venus's northand south poles. Magellan completed one orbit every3 hours, 15 minutes.During the part of its orbit closest to Venus,Magellan's radar mapper imaged a swath of the plan-et's surface approximately 17 to 28 kilometers (10 to17 miles) wide. At the end of each orbit, the space-craft radioed back to Earth a map of a long ribbon-like strip of the planet's surface captured on that orbit.Venus itself rotates once every 243 Earth days. Asthe planet rotated under the spacecraft, Magellan col-lected strip after strip of radar image data, eventuallycovering the entire globe at the end of the 243-dayorbital cycle.By the end of its first such eight-month orbitalcycle between September 1990 and May 1991,Magellan had sent to Earth detailed images of 84 per-cent of Venus's surface. The spacecraft then conduct-ed radar mapping on two more eight- months cyclesfrom May 1991 to September 1992. This allowed itto capture detailed maps of 98 percent of the planet'ssurface. The follow-on cycles also allowed scientiststo look for any changes in the surface from one yearto the next. In addition, because the "look angle" of the radar was slightly different from one cycle to thenext, scientists could construct three-dimensionalviews of Venus's surface.During Magellan's fourth eight-month orbitalcycle at Venus from September 1992 to May 1993,the spacecraft collected data on the planet's gravityfield. During this cycle, Magellan did not use itsradar mapper but instead transmitted a constant radiosignal to Earth. If it passed over an area of Venuswith higher than normal gravity, the spacecraft wouldslightly speed up in its orbit. This would cause thefrequency of Magellan's radio signal to change veryslightly due to the Doppler effect -- much like thepitch of a siren changes as an ambulance passes.Thanks to the ability of radio receivers in theNASA/JPLDeep Space Network to measure frequen-cies extremely accurately, scientists could build up adetailed gravity map of Venus.At the end of Magellan's fourth orbital cycle inMay 1993, flight controllers lowered the spacecraft'sorbit using a then-untried technique called aerobrak-ing. This maneuver sent Magellan dipping intoVenus's atmosphere once every orbit; the atmosphericdrag on the spacecraft slowed down Magellan andlowered its orbit. After the aerobraking was complet-ed between May 25 and August 3, 1993, Magellan'sorbit then took it as close as 180 kilometers (112miles) from Venus and as far away as 541 kilometers(336 miles). Magellan also circled Venus morequickly, completing an orbit once every 94 minutes.This new, more circularized orbit allowed Magellanto collect better gravity data in the higher northernand southern latitudes near Venus's poles.After the end of that fifth orbital cycle in April1994, Magellan began a sixth and final orbital cycle,collecting more gravity data and conducting radar andradio science experiments. By the end of the mission,Magellan captured high-resolution gravity data forabout 95 percent of the planet's surface.In September 1994, Magellan's orbit was loweredonce more in another test called a "windmill experi-ment." In this test, the spacecraft's solar panels wereturned to a configuration resembling the blades of awindmill, and Magellan's orbit was lowered into thethin outer reaches of Venus's dense atmosphere.Flight controllers then measured the amount of torquecontrol required to maintain Magellan's orientationand keep it from spinning. This experiment gave sci-entists data on the behavior of molecules in Venus'supper atmosphere, and lent engineers new informa-tion useful in designing spacecraft.On October 11, 1994, Magellan's orbit was low-ered a final time, causing the spacecraft to becomecaught in the atmosphere and plunge to the surface;contact was lost the following day. Although much of Magellan was believed to be vaporized, some sectionsprobably hit the planet's surface intact.
One of the handful of planets known to theancients, Venus is often called Earth's sister planetbecause of its similar size and distance from the sun.Earth is 12,756 kilometers (7,926 miles) in diameter,2
compared to Venus at 12,103 kilometers (7,520miles); Earth orbits the sun at an average 149.6 mil-lion kilometers (93 million miles), compared to Venusat 108.2 kilometers (67.2 million miles). The twoplanets' densities are also similar -- 5.52 grams percubic centimeter for Earth, compared to 5.24 gramsper cc for Venus. Because Venus is closer to the sunthan Earth is, it always appears close to the sun fromour point of view as either a glistening, brightevening or morning "star."Despite the similarities, however, in other waysVenus is very much unlike Earth. Venus has a surfacetemperature of about 470 degrees Celsius (about 900degrees Fahrenheit); the atmospheric pressure at thesurface is 90 times greater than Earth's. Venus'satmosphere is nearly devoid of water, made up of 97percent carbon dioxide; its upper clouds contain sul-furic acid. Venus has no moons, and no magneticfield has been detected. It rotates on its axis in a ret-rograde direction -- that is, opposite that of Earth andmost of the other planets -- very slowly, once every243 Earth days.The first spacecraft mission to another planet wasthe NASA/JPLspacecraft Mariner 2, which executeda flyby of Venus in December 1962. Other U.S.spacecraft to visit Venus have included Mariner 10,which flew by Venus in 1974 on its way to Mercuryin the first mission to more than a single planet; andPioneer Venus, a 1978 mission that included anorbiter with an altimeter and imaging radar that func-tioned at lower resolution than Magellan's, as well asmultiple probes that descended into Venus's atmos-phere. The then-Soviet Union also sent a number of spacecraft to Venus, including four -- Venera 9, 10, 13and 14 -- that landed on the surface and made closeuppictures of the rocky terrain briefly before the searingheat caused them to stop functioning. Two otherSoviet missions, Venera 15 and 16, used orbitingimaging radar similar to Magellan's but at a lowerresolution.
The Magellan Spacecraft
Built partially with spare parts from other mis-sions, the Magellan spacecraft was 4.6 meters (15.4feet) long, topped with a 3.7-meter (12-foot) high-gain antenna. Mated to its retrorocket and fullytanked with propellants, the spacecraft weighed atotal of 3,460 kilograms (7,612 pounds) at launch.The high-gain antenna, used for both communica-tion and radar imaging, was a spare from theNASA/JPLVoyager mission to the outer planets, aswere Magellan's 10-sided main structure and a set of thrusters. The command data computer system, atti-tude control computer and power distribution unitsare spares from the Galileo mission to Jupiter.Magellan's medium-gain antenna is from theNASA/JPLMariner 9 project. Martin Marietta Corp.was the prime contractor for the Magellan spacecraft,while Hughes Aircraft Co. was the prime contractorfor the radar system.Magellan was powered by two square solar pan-els, each measuring 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) on a side;together they supplied 1,200 watts of power. Overthe course of the mission the solar panels graduallydegraded, as expected; by the end of the mission inthe fall of 1994 it was necessary to manage powerusage carefully to keep the spacecraft operating.The mission was named for the 16th-centuryPortuguese explorer whose mission first circumnavi-gated the Earth by ocean.
Imaging Radar
Because Venus is shrouded by a dense, opaqueatmosphere, conventional optical cameras cannot beused to image its surface. Instead, Magellan's imag-ing radar uses bursts of microwave energy somewhatlike a camera flash to illuminate the planet's surface.Magellan's high-gain antenna sends out millionsof pulses each second toward the planet; the antennathen collects the echoes returned to the spacecraftwhen the radar pulses bounce off Venus's surface.The radar pulses are not sent directly downward butrather at a slight angle to the side of the spacecraft,the radar is thus sometimes called "side-lookingradar." In addition, special processing techniques areused on the radar data to result in higher resolution asif the radar had a larger antenna, or "aperture"; thetechnique is thus often called "synthetic apertureradar," or SAR.Synthetic aperture radar was first used by NASAon JPL's Seasat oceanographic satellite in 1978; itwas later developed more extensively on theSpaceborne Imaging Radar (SIR) missions on thespace shuttle in 1981, 1984 and 1994. An imagingradar is also part of the NASA/JPLCassini mission toSaturn, for mapping the surface of the ringed planet's3

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