Tag Archives: exploration

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

How to land on Venus

On the anniversary of Venera 7’s launch – the first spacecraft to successfully land on Venus – curator Doug Millard reflects on the challenge of exploring other worlds.

Over a 20-year period from the mid-1960s, Soviet scientists and engineers conducted one of the most successful interplanetary exploration programmes ever.

They launched a flotilla of spacecraft far beyond Earth and its Moon. Some failed, but others set a remarkable record of space firsts: first spacecraft to impact another planet, first controlled landing on another planet and the first photographs from its surface. The planet in question was not Mars – it was Venus.

Our knowledge of Venus at the time had been patchy. But as the Soviet probes journeyed down through the Venusian atmosphere it became clear that this planet – named after the Roman goddess of love – was a supremely hostile world. The spacecraft were named Venera (Russian for Venus) and the early probes succumbed to the planet’s immense atmospheric pressure, crushed and distorted as if made of paper.

Venera 3 did make it to the surface – the first craft ever to do so – but was dead by the time it impacted, destroyed by the weight of the air. Venera 4 was also shattered on the way down, but it survived long enough to return the first data from within another planet’s atmosphere. The engineers realised, though, they would have to reinforce still further the spacecraft’s titanium structures and silica-based heat shield.

The information coming in from the Venera probes was supplemented with readings from American spacecraft and ground-based observatories on Earth. Each added to an emerging picture of a hellish planet with temperatures of over 400 °C on the surface and an atmospheric pressure at ground level 90 times greater than Earth’s.

Spacecraft can only be launched towards Venus during a ‘window of opportunity’ that lasts a few days every 19 months. Only then do Earth and Venus’ relative positions in the Solar System allow for a viable mission. The Soviets therefore usually launched a pair of spacecraft at each opportunity. Venera 5 and 6 were launched on 5 and 19 January 1969, both arriving at Venus four months later.

There had not been time to strengthen these spacecraft against the unforgiving atmosphere, so instead the mission designers modified their parachutes so that they would descend faster and reach lower altitudes, sending back new data before their inevitable destruction.

Venera 7 descent module, (engineering model, scale 1;1), 1970  This descent module with parachute lanyards clearly visible was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970

This Venera 7 descent module (engineering model) with parachute lanyards clearly visible, was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970. Credit: Lavochkin Association/Photo: State Museum and Exhibition center, ROSIZO

Launched on 17 August 1970, Venera 7 made it intact to the surface of Venus on 15 December 1970 – the first probe ever to soft land on another planet. Its instruments measured a temperature of 465 °C on the ground. It continued to transmit for 23 minutes before its batteries were exhausted.

Venera 8 carried more scientific instruments which revealed that it had landed in sunlight. It survived for another 50 minutes. Venera 9, the first of a far stronger spacecraft design, touched down on 22 October 1975 and returned the first pictures from the surface of another planet. It too showed sunny conditions – comparable, the scientists reckoned, to a Moscow day in June.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

The surface was shown to be mostly level and made up of flat, irregularly shaped rocks. The camera could see clearly to the horizon – there was no dust in the atmosphere, but its thickness refracted the light, playing tricks and making the horizon appear nearer than it actually was. The clouds were high – about 50 km overhead.

The Soviet Union now had a winning spacecraft design that could withstand the worst that Venus could do. More missions followed, but then in the early 1980s the designers started making plans for the most challenging interplanetary mission ever attempted.

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.  Credit: NASA History Office

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.
Credit: NASA History Office

Scientists around the world were keen to send spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, which was returning to ‘our’ part of the Solar System on its 75-year orbit of the Sun. America, Europe and Japan all launched missions, but the Soviets’ pair of Vega spacecraft were the most ambitious, combining as they did a sequence of astonishing manoeuvres, first at Venus and then at Halley’s Comet.

Both craft were international in their own right, with many nations contributing to their array of scientific instruments. They arrived at Venus in June 1985.

Each released a descent probe into the Venusian atmosphere. Part of it released a lander that parachuted down to the surface while the other part deployed a balloon, with a package of scientific instruments suspended underneath that first dropped and then rose through the atmosphere to be carried around the planet by winds blowing at well over 200 miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the main part of each Vega spacecraft continued on past Venus, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself towards an encounter with Halley.

A little under a year later both arrived a few million kilometres distant from the comet. Both were battered and damaged by its dust, but their instruments and cameras returned plenty of information on the ancient, icy and primordial heavenly body.

A golden age of Russian planetary exploration had come to an end.

Russia plans to return to Venus, but meanwhile its Vega spacecraft, their instruments long dead, continue to patrol the outer reaches of the Solar System, relics of the nation’s pioneering days of space exploration.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our upcoming exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

The last man on the moon

Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, visited the Museum for a tour of our space technologies collections with Curator Doug Millard. Press Officer Will Stanley describes Gene’s encounter with his old spaceship.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

This is the Apollo 10 Command Module, sent to the Moon and back by NASA in May 1969 as a dry run for the mission that would put the first men on the Moon. But it’s also known by another name, “Charlie Brown”, and this was how Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan greeted the module when he saw it this morning in the Science Museum.

I asked Gene what it felt like being reunited with Charlie Brown again, “You take yourself back in time to where you were. The view was out of this world.” And Gene should know. He’s been into space three times: as pilot of Gemini 9A (1966); lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 (1969); and as commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last Apollo mission.

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery. Credit: Science Museum

As only the 11th person to walk on the Moon – and the last to re-enter Apollo 17’s lunar module – Gene has the distinction of being the last man on the Moon. How long he will keep this unique title is still a matter of debate. “Curiosity is the essence of human existence. We have centuries of exploration on this planet alone. What’s around the corner? What’s across the ocean? It is our destiny to explore,” explains Gene.

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Walking through our Exploring Space gallery with Curator Doug Millard, our conversation turns to the differences between manned and robotic space exploration. “This is the only computer that can respond to the unexpected,” says Gene, pointing to his brain. “You send humans to deal with the unexpected. To bring back things no one expected to find. That’s the purpose of exploration.”

We arrive in front of Apollo 10. “That’s Charlie Brown. I like to feel that by going to the Moon in Apollo 10 for a dry run, we made Apollo 11 far more successful.” Gene turns to us and jokes, “Where were you when Apollo 10 launched? I know where I was! Sat in that.”

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

His re-entry was one of the most dramatic ever seen. Apollo 10 holds the record as the fastest manned vehicle, reaching speeds of almost 40,000 km per hour (11.08 km/s or 24,791 mph to be exact) during its return to Earth on 26th May 1969. “It was 5 or 6 in the morning and we were like a shooting star coming in,” explains Gene. “On my Gemini mission I could see reds and greens, but for the Apollo 10 re-entry I saw purples and a white hot glow.”

After Gene spots an image of his excursions driving NASA’s Lunar Rover (Moon buggy) on display, I asked which was more fun, driving the rover or piloting “Snoopy”, the lunar module. “Flying Snoopy was pretty exciting, but driving a car in 1/6th of Earth’s gravity. Well if you get the chance, try it. It is a lot of fun. I truly believe we could go back and drive it again, but you might need to replace the batteries,” jokes Gene.

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

“Someone did a hell of a good job building it,” says Gene, looking at Apollo 10. “This not only got us there, it got us back again too. Every man who went to the moon came back.” The round trip to the moon took Apollo 10 eight days. Gene explains how he passed the time, “It was very busy, and pretty exciting. There were all kinds of experiments to do and we were getting ready for challenges ahead. On the way back, you look back and have to pinch yourself. The good news is you had the chance to do it, to go to the Moon. The bad news was that the time went so fast.

Our time is up. Gene takes a last look at Charlie Brown, his former home in space. “In Apollo 10, the three of us, Commander Thomas Stafford, Command Module Pilot John Young and me, we travelled faster than any other human beings ever.” It’s a claim very few can make.

On Thursday 26 September 2013, the Science Museum is offering visitors the rare opportunity to see the interior of the Apollo 10 Command Module via a handheld camera. Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technologies and Engineering will be answering questions about Apollo 10 and the Museum’s Space Technologies collections.

The Science Museum will be also be sharing images and taking questions via Twitter using @sciencemuseum and #Apollo10.