DARMSTADT, Germany -- A European spacecraft left Earth Wednesday on a five-month, 220 million-mile journey to Venus.
The European Space Agency said the unmanned Venus Express lifted off from Kazakhstan, and mission control in Darmstadt immediately picked up a signal to hearty applause in the observation room.
The Europeans then received another signal -- a congratulatory note from the Pasadena, Calif.,-based Planetary Society, which had monitored the launch from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
The $260 million spacecraft will take 163 days to get to Earth's nearest planetary neighbor, where it will drop into orbit and explore the hot, dense atmosphere of Venus.
"The mission is an outstanding success," Gaele Winters, director of ESA's operations in Darmstadt, told reporters. "We had a perfect launch, the instruments are switched on, the solar panels are deployed, everything is working."
The Venus mission is the latest sign that competition in space is heating up even as NASA is reassessing its own exploration plans.
NASA is cutting some of its programs to focus resources on developing a replacement for the space shuttle.
The space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 caused NASA to ground its fleet for more than two years. Flights resumed in July with the Discovery, but the dangerous loss of a chunk of its insulation during launch has put future missions on hold until at least May, and possibly even next summer. NASA plans 18 more shuttle flights to the international space station and possibly one to the Hubble Space Telescope before the fleet is retired in 2010.
"NASA has really dominated in planetary science and missions for the last 40 years," having seen off the challenge from the former Soviet Union, said Spas Baradash of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. "But now Europe is catching up."
Last month, two Chinese astronauts spent five days in orbit last month on that country's second manned mission.
Japan and India also are ramping up their programs, and despite close cooperation between scientists and agencies, "maybe we are witnessing the beginning of a new space race," said Baradash, who worked on the instruments aboard Venus Express.
David Southwood, ESA's scientific director, said the Venus mission "once again illustrates Europe's determination to explore the different bodies in our solar system."
European scientists plan to apply next month for funding for new ESA missions to Mars and the moon.
Venus Express follows ESA's successful Mars Express, launched in 2003. It is Europe's first mission to Venus, which is sometimes visible at sunrise or sunset along the horizon.
The Venus mission aims to explore the planet's atmosphere, concentrating on its greenhouse effect and the hurricane force winds that constantly encircle it at high altitudes.
There have been roughly 20 U.S. and Soviet missions to Venus since the 1960s, the last being NASA's Magellan, which completed more than 15,000 orbits between 1990 and 1994. Using radar, Magellan mapped virtually its entire surface, revealing towering volcanoes, gigantic rifts and crisp-edged craters.
The Venus Express' seven instruments, including a special camera as well as a spectrometer to measure temperatures and analyze the atmosphere, will try to determine whether the planet's volcanoes are active. It also will examine how a world so similar to Earth could have evolved so differently.
"Venus is still a big mystery," said Gerhard Schwehm, head of planetary missions at ESA.
In the next three days, mission controllers will continue testing the probe's instruments. It is expected to reach Venus in April, when it will slow down to enter the planet's orbit. It will begin the initial stages of gathering data in June.
"We hope to see the first results in early July," said Schwehm, adding that the probe will remain active for more than a year.
Venus and Earth are alike in that they share similar mass and density. Both have inner cores of rock and are believed to have been formed at roughly the same time.
However, they have vastly different atmospheres, with Venus' composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide and very little water vapor. It also has the hottest surface of all the planets in the solar system.