NASA’s Magellan encounters Venus, August 10, 1990

-August 10, 2017

In 1990, EDN was in its 34th year. What else was happening in 1990?:

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The Magellan space probe encountered Venus on August 10, 1990. The NASA spacecraft immediately began an orbital insertion maneuver that placed it into a 3 hour and 9 minute elliptical orbit 295-kilometers from the surface of the planet.

The mission, charged with radar mapping Venus, was launched on May 4, 1989, from the Kennedy Space Center. It had originally been scheduled for launch in 1988 with a trajectory lasting six months. However, due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, several missions, including Magellan and Jupiter-focused Galileo, were postponed. 

Galileo, which had been scheduled for 1986, was pushed back to 1989, crowding the already full launch schedule and, as it included a flyby of Venus, complicating Magellan’s mission. Galileo launched in October and Magellan in May, moved into a longer orbit that would require 1 year and 3 months to encounter Venus.

Magellan imaged more than 98% of Venus at a resolution of about 100 meters. (See the hemispheric view of Venus shot by the spacecraft below, photo credit NASA)

In May 1993, NASA lowered the spacecraft's orbit using a then untried technique called "aerobraking," which slowed down Magellan and lowered its orbit by dipping it into Venus' atmosphere once every orbit, utilizing atmospheric drag. In April 1994, Magellan began a sixth and final orbital cycle, collecting gravity data and conducting radar and radio science experiments.

Its mission was complete in October 1994 and Magellan's orbit was lowered to take readings of Venus' outer atmosphere. Much of the spacecraft was vaporized, although, it is believed that some parts may have hit the planet's surface intact.

Interestingly, Magellan was built partially from spare parts from other missions, including the Voyager Program. The spacecraft was 15.4 feet long, with 12-foot high-gain antenna. The entire craft, including its retrorocket and a full propellant tank, weighed 7,612 pounds at launch.

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on August 10, 2012 and edited on August 10, 2017.

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