Venus Express is well and healthy and has now been providing exciting new data from Venus, our nearby twin planet, for over 2 years. Many of the new results are presented and discussed in the subsequent papers in this special section. The overall scientific objective of Venus Express is to carry out a detailed study of the atmosphere of Venus, including the interaction of the upper atmosphere with the solar wind and the interaction of the lowest part of the atmosphere with the surface of the planet. In addition, the plasma environment and magnetic fields as well as some aspects of the surface of the planet are addressed. For the first time, investigations make systematic use of the transparent infrared spectral windows in order to probe the atmosphere in four dimensions: three spatial dimensions plus time. The spacecraft design is taken from Mars Express with some modifications necessary owing to the specific environment around Venus. The payload is composed of three spectrometers, a camera, a magnetometer, an instrument for detecting energetic particles, and a radio science package. The orbit is polar and highly elliptic, with a pericenter altitude of about 200 km over the northern polar region and an apocenter altitude of 66,000 km. Presently, the coverage of the southern hemisphere is very good, but important gaps still do exist. The coverage of the northern hemisphere is much less dense. Venus Express is a part of the European Space Agency's program for the exploration of the inner solar system, which includes missions to study the Sun, Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, and comets and asteroids.