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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Space Agency Spins Craft Around Venus

DARMSTADT, Germany -- A European space probe successfully reached orbit around Venus Tuesday on a mission to explore the mysterious atmosphere of Earth's nearest neighbor.

Mission controllers at the European Space Agency control center in Darmstadt cheered, clapped and embraced after they picked up the signal from the Venus Express craft indicating it had completed the orbital maneuver.

The probe disappeared behind the planet for roughly 10 minutes, leaving controllers without contact as it swung around the back of the planet, whose hot, dense atmosphere the mission plans to explore.

"It's a fantastic mission for us; we've finally reached Venus," said project manager Don McCoy.

Europe's space program now has craft orbiting two planets in the solar system other than Earth, with the Mars Express probe circling Mars. A third craft, Rosetta, is on its way to land on a comet.

"We've put together a second planetary mission in as short a time as possible,"said McCoy. "We've put two satellites around two planets. It's incredible what we've accomplished."

The craft's signal reappeared as a bright green line on a screen in mission control after the maneuver, in which Venus Express fired its main engine for 51 minutes, slowing it down so the planet's gravity could pull it into orbit.

Officials say they could have a first picture of the Venutian south pole back from the spacecraft as early as Thursday.

ESA will use the craft's seven instruments to search for clues about why Venus wound up with an atmosphere almost 90 times denser than Earth's and shrouded in clouds of sulfuric acid.

The instruments on board the 220-million euro ($260-million) craft include spectrometers to measure temperature and analyze the atmosphere and a special camera that will concentrate on documenting whether Venus' many volcanoes are active.

Venus and Earth share similar mass and density. Both have inner cores of rock and are believed to have been formed at roughly the same time.

Despite those similarities, the two have vastly different atmospheres, with Venus' composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide and very little water vapor. Thanks to runaway warming from its greenhouse effect, Venus has the hottest surface of all the planets, around 464 degrees Celsius.

Scientists hope the mission will provide answers. "Venus is quite close to earth, yet so radically different," said project director McCoy. "Why is that?"

If everything goes according to plan, ESA plans to keep the probe active for 500 days, with the possibility of extending its life by another 500 days.

Venus Express was launched Nov. 9 atop a Russian booster rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.