Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: Pioneer, mapping the surface of Venus

Image Credit: JPL, NASA

On this day in 1978, the Pioneer Venus 1 spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket. Under the Venus project, the twelfth mission of the Pioneer program would be the first of two spacecrafts to carefully map the surface of Venus. The spacecraft was inserted into an elliptical orbit around Venus on December 4, 1978. Radar data from Pioneer indicated that Venus was much smoother and more spherical than Earth.

Complete surface map of Venus Image Credit: NASA Ames Reseach Center, U.S Geological Survey and Messachusetts Institute of Technology

Complete surface map of Venus
Image Credit: NASA Ames Reseach Center, U.S Geological Survey and Messachusetts Institute of Technology

Spacecraft instruments included:

1) Charged-particle retarding potential analyzer
2) charged-particle mass spectrometer
3) thermal electron temperature Langmuir probe
4) neutral-particle mass spectrometer
5) cloud photopolarimeter/imaging system
6) temperature sounding infrared radiometer
7) magnetic field fluxgate magnetometer
8) solar wind plasma analyzer
9) surface radar mapper
10) electric field experiment
11) transient gamma-ray burst experiment
12) gas and plasma environment experiment
13) radio occultation experiment
14) atmospheric and solar corona turbulence experiment
15) drag measurements experiment
16) internal density distribution experiment
17) celestial mechanics experiment

The orbiter measured the structure of the upper atmosphere of Venus and its ionosphere. It also investigated the interaction of the solar wind with the ionosphere and the magnetic field in the vicinity of Venus, determined the characteristics of the atmosphere and surface of Venus on a planetary scale, determined the planet’s gravitational field harmonics from perturbations of the spacecraft orbit, and detected gamma-ray bursts.

Costing $125 million to construct, Pioneer Venus 1 last communicated with Earth on October 8, 1992 ending a successful fourteen-year mission that was scheduled to last for eight months.




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Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

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