Venus Express Blasts Out One Last Message From Beyond The Grave

The Venus Express spacecraft was declared scientifically dead in December when, finally out of propellent, it decayed into an uncontrolled spin. After a few accidental communications when pure luck pointed its antenna at Earth, it let out one last bleat of full-volume noise.

This is the last message from Venus Express: a startlingly loud spike in the carrier signal rising over 30 decibels for roughly a minute on January 18, 2015:

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The last cry of the Venus Express, heard on January 18, 2014. Image credit: ESA

The message isn't much to look at. It was picked up by the European Space Agency monitoring the unmodulated X-band carrier signal on January 19th. The agency has been monitoring for any last signals since the spacecraft was declared lost, hoping for the occasional burst of noise when the spacecraft's wild spin just happened to orient its High Gain Antenna in our direction. The signal had been getting ever more unreliable since the spacecraft passed through the percenter of its orbit on January 17th, with only the occasional intermittent carrier signal lock. After the last hurrah on January 18th, only an occasional spurious lock indication gave any sign of the spacecraft's carrier signal. As of January 19th, even that feeble gasp of communication above the background noise was lost.

From what they've been able to monitor of the spacecraft's decay, ESA predicts that the Venus Express passed through the pericenter of its orbit at 23:05 UTC on January 20th, at an altitude of 119.9 kilometer, dropping another 0.5 kilometer by the time it next passed through the pericenter at 16:56 UTC the following day. This decay is expected to continue, eventually accelerating as the craft is dragged on by more of the planet's atmosphere. Soon, the Venus Express will be seared by reentry, etched by the acidic atmosphere, and brutally squeezed by the unrelentingly thick atmosphere until only scrap metal remains.

The project team believes that the Venus Express is still in orbit, but is no longer capable of any communication even by chance. They will continue monitoring for another week just in case they're surprised by the spacecraft imitating Monty Python's Black Knight for one final denial of mortal wounds, but do not anticipate publishing any further updates.

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I still can't decide if we should anthropomorphize this into a shriek of terror for an out-of-control spacecraft tumbling ever-closer to being crushed and etched by the painfully hostile Venus environment, or the gleeful shout of a adrenaline-addicted thrill-seeking spacecraft on a crazy ride to cap off years of ploddingly successful science.

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