Scientists Release Images of Venus' South Pole

European scientists on Thursday released the first photos of Venus' south pole from their orbiting Venus Express spacecraft — revealing a swirling twist of cloud that closely resembles cloud formations around the more familiar north pole.

The image, taken from a distance of roughly 124,000 miles and released by the European Space Agency, shows pale yellow clouds ribbed with darker spirals and a dark vortex.

"We can see there is a twister here that is similar to that which we know from the north pole," said Horst Uwe Keller, who leads the team operating the craft's wide-angle, multichannel camera — one of seven instruments aboard the Venus Express.

The images were taken Wednesday, one day after Venus Express went into orbit around the planet. ESA said they were the first pictures of the planet's south pole, which is turned away from Earth.

ESA controllers in Darmstadt, Germany, switched on each instrument individually to make sure they had all survived after burning the craft's main engine to slow it down so it could be captured by Venus' gravity.

Over the next several weeks, scientists will run more thorough tests on the instruments, designed to help researchers better understand the atmosphere and climate of Earth's neighbor. By June, they expect to have all instruments functioning fully.

As the spacecraft tightens its orbit in the coming months, scientists expect it to capture more detailed and revealing images of Venus from a distance of only about 150, Keller said in a telephone interview.

Using infrared technology that allows the camera to peer though the clouds, scientists hope to be able to determine how the clouds of sulfuric acid that swathe the planet were formed and pinpoint the cause of the ultra high-speed winds that send them swirling.

"I think that the decisive question will be to discover the dynamic of the atmosphere," Keller said. "Why are the clouds turning in the direction that we see? Why so quickly?"

The $260-million mission, the first to Venus since NASA sent up Magellan in 1989, aims to study the greenhouse effect on the planet, where the atmosphere is extremely hot and dense.

It also hopes to learn what caused the planet's volcanic resurfacing some 500 million years ago and whether there is any volcanic or seismic activity taking place today.

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

Under current plans, the mission is to last 500 days, with the possibility of extending it for another 500.