Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5: Mariner 10 flyby of Venus

Mariner 10 passed Venus on February 5, 1974, 
at a closest range of 5,768 km at 17:01 UT

Mariner 10 was a robotic space probe launched on November 3, 1973 to fly by the planets Mercury and Venus. It was launched approximately 2 years after Mariner 9 and was the last spacecraft in the Mariner program (Mariner 11 and 12 were re-purposed to the Voyager program and redesignated Voyager 1 and Voyager 2). 

Mariner 10 was the seventh successful launch in the Mariner series and the first spacecraft to visit Mercury. It was also the first spacecraft to use the gravitational pull of one planet (Venus) to reach another (Mercury), and the first spacecraft mission to visit two planets. The spacecraft flew by Mercury three times in a retrograde heliocentric orbit and returned images and data on the planet. Mariner 10 returned the first-ever close-up images of Venus and Mercury. The primary scientific objectives of the mission were to measure Mercury's environment, atmosphere, surface, and body characteristics and to make similar investigations of Venus. Secondary objectives were to perform experiments in the interplanetary medium and to obtain experience with a dual-planet gravity-assist mission.

Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to make use of an interplanetary "gravitational slingshot" maneuver, using Venus to bend its flight path and bring its perihelion down to the level of Mercury's orbit. This maneuver, inspired by the orbital mechanics calculations of the Italian scientist Giuseppe Colombo, put the spacecraft into an orbit that repeatedly brought it back to Mercury. Mariner 10 used the solar radiation pressure on its solar panels and its high-gain antenna as a means of attitude control during flight, the first spacecraft to use active solar pressure control.

The spacecraft passed Venus on February 5, 1974, at a closest range of 5768 km at 17:01 UT. Using a near-ultraviolet filter, it photographed the Cytherean chevron clouds and performed other atmospheric studies. It was discovered that extensive cloud detail could be seen via Mariner's ultra-violet camera filters. Venus's cloud cover is nearly featureless in visible light. Earth-based ultra-violet observation did reveal some indistinct blotching even before Mariner 10, but the detail seen by Mariner was a surprise to most researchers.

During its flyby of Venus, Mariner 10 discovered evidence of rotating clouds and a very weak magnetic field.

With its maneuvering gas just about exhausted, Mariner 10 started another orbit of the Sun. Engineering tests were continued until March 24, 1975, when the final depletion of the nitrogen supply was signaled by the onset of an un-programmed pitch turn. Commands were immediately sent to the spacecraft to turn off its transmitter, and radio signals to Earth ceased.

Presently, Mariner 10 is still orbiting the sun, although its on-board electronics have probably been damaged by the sun's radiation.

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