One hundred days after beginning its cruise to Venus, the Venus Express spacecraft has successfully tested its main engine for the first time in space.
The European Space Agency said that the main engine test is a "critical step" in the mission. It is this powerful thrust that will allow the spacecraft to "brake" on arrival at Venus in order to be captured in orbit around the planet.
The engine was fired up and the resultant 'burn' lasted for about three seconds. The spacecraft has now changed its velocity by almost three metres per second.
About an hour later, the data received from the spacecraft by the Venus Express ground control team revealed that the test was successful.
The technicians reported that the engine performed as expected and that the spacecraft reacted correctly to the push.
All data recorded during the burn will now be carefully analysed by Astrium (which built the spacecraft) and engineers at the European Space Agency to study the performance of the engine in detail.
The next big milestone is the Venus Orbit Insertion manoeuvre on 11 April 2006, which will require the main engine firing sequence to operate for about 51 minutes in the opposite direction to the spacecraft's motion.
This braking will allow the spacecraft to counteract the pull of the Sun and Venus, and to start orbiting the planet.
Venus Express is currently about 47 million kilometres from Earth.
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