Missions to Venus: Highlights From History, and When We May Go Back
Mariner 2 was the first American spacecraft to make it to Venus, in 1962. It determined that temperatures were cooler higher in the clouds, but extremely hot on the surface.
In 1978, the Pioneer missions gave American researchers a closer look. The first of the pair orbited the planet for nearly 14 years, revealing much about the mysterious Venusian atmosphere. It also observed the surface was smoother than Earth’s, and that Venus had very little or perhaps no magnetic field. A second Pioneer mission sent a number of probes into Venus’s atmosphere, returning information on the structure of the clouds and radar readings of the surface.
NASA’s Magellan entered into orbit in 1990 and spent four years mapping the surface and looking for evidence of plate tectonics. It discovered that nearly 85 percent of the surface was covered in old lava flows, hinting at significant past and possible present volcanic activity.
It was also the last of the American visitors, although a number of NASA spacecraft have used Venus as a slingshot as they set course for other destinations.
Venus Express was launched by the European Space Agency in 2005. It orbited the planet for eight years and observed that it still may have been geologically active.
The planet’s only guest from Earth right now is Akatsuki, which was launched by Japan in 2010. The probe missed its meeting with Venus when its engine failed to fire as it headed into orbit. By 2015, the mission’s managers had managed to steer it on a course to orbit and study the planet.
It has since transformed how scientists view our clouded twin. In its study of the physics of the dense cloud layers of Venus, the mission has revealed disturbances in the planet’s winds known as gravity waves, as well as equatorial jet streams in its atmosphere.