Japan's Spacecraft Reaches Venus, But Did It Miss Its Orbital Path?

By Andrew Moseman | December 7, 2010 5:32 pm

akatsukiJapan’s new spacecraft has reached Venus; that much we know. But today Akatsuki left its creators hanging when it lost contact with home for longer than expected, and Japan’s space agency JAXA is now trying to make sure the $300 million mission reached the orbit they intended for it above the second planet from the sun.

When Akatsuki arrived at Venus and swung around the backside, it was expected to lose contact with Earth for a little over 20 minutes. Instead, it couldn’t reach JAXA for an hour and a half, sending the space scientists scrambling to make sure nothing went awry.

Communications with the probe were eventually resumed, but it’s currently unclear whether Akatsuki successfully entered orbit around Venus. “It is not known which path the probe is following at the moment,” JAXA official Munetaka Ueno told the AFP news agency. “We are making maximum effort to readjust the probe.” [National Geographic]

JAXA blasted Akatsuki into space back in May; it was the same launch the sent the successful Ikaros solar sail on its way. Presuming it reaches the correct orbit, Akatsuki will join forces with the European craft Venus Express already in orbit to study Earth’s hellish sister planet.

One main goal is to see how Venus veered off on such an extreme path, becoming an inhospitable world with thick sulfuric-acid clouds and surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead, JAXA officials have said. “In so many ways, Venus is similar to Earth. It has about the same mass, is approximately the same distance from the sun and is made of the same basic materials,” Akatsuki project scientist Takeshi Imamura said in a statement. “Yet the two worlds ended up so different. We want to know why.” [Space.com]

Akatsuki, however, might be able to confirm something that would make Venus more like the Earth: that the second planet is volcanically active.

Infrared sensitivity can also be used to study surface composition. This is how scientists hope to detect active volcanism. Europe’s Venus Express probe recently found lava flows that could have been younger than 250,000 years old. [BBC News]

Hopefully by later tonight (Tuesday), Japan will know the fate of its craft.

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80beats: Solar Sail Success: Japanese Craft Powered by the Sun’s Force
80beats: Volcanoes on Venus Could be Alive & Ready to Erupt

Image: JAXA


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