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Out of Fuel, Venus Express Is Falling Gently to Its Death in Planet's Skies

Just above the surface of Venus, one of Earth's most intrepid robots is slipping into a sulfuric hereafter. Over the next few months, Venus Express will fall slowly through the 150-mile-thick (250 kilometers) atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid that envelops the planet. The European Space Agency announced Tuesday that the mission has ended, after losing contact with the spacecraft in late November when it ran out of gas. For the past 8.5 years, Venus Express has been orbiting our nearest neighbor, quietly unveiling the shrouded planet's secrets. "The spacecraft is expected to drop below 150 kilometers <93 miles> in early January 2015, and plunge much deeper into the atmosphere of Venus by early February," says Patrick Martin, Venus Express mission manager. "It will be destroyed in the atmosphere most likely toward the end of January or early February." The craft will probably burn up as it makes its final descent. During its time in orbit nearly 155 million miles (250 million kilometers) away from Earth, Venus Express revealed many surprises about Earth's sister planet. It found some evidence for both past water on the surface and for recent volcanic activity, and spied on the mammoth, shape-shifting vortexes that swirl at the planet's poles. It studied the planet's odd, super-rotating atmosphere, which whips around the Earth-size world at 250 miles (400 kilometers) per hour. And it even detected evidence for lightning—and ozone—in the thick, mostly-carbon-dioxide atmosphere. "Both geologically and from the point of view of the atmospheric circulation, Venus Express has just been an amazing mission," says Ellen Stofan, NASA's chief scientist. "And it's really helped to refine the question of what you want to do next at Venus." via Nat Geo.

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