Japan's Spacecraft Misses Venus, but Gets Another Chance—in 6 Years

By Andrew Moseman | December 8, 2010 9:33 am

akatsukiWhen we left Akatsuki last night, the Japanese spacecraft’s operators were waiting with fingers crossed, hoping their $300 million baby could still successfully enter orbit of Venus even after things started to go wrong. Overnight our time, the bad news came in: Akatsuki missed the target, and won’t have another shot at it for six more years.

Things first started to get hairy when Akatsuki, after traveling more than six months to the second planet, lost contact with Earth for longer than expected—an hour and a half as opposed to the 22 minutes it was supposed to be out of reach as it passed behind the planet.

JAXA scientists managed to re-establish communication with the spacecraft, the newspaper Japan Today reported. But during a press conference Tuesday (Dec. 7), JAXA officials said Akatsuki sped past Venus, failing to insert into orbit, according to Japan Today. “I’m sorry that we failed to meet the expectations of the public,” Japan Today quoted Masato Nakamura, Akatsuki project manager, as saying during the press conference. [Space.com]

Having made their apologies, the Akatsuki researchers are investigating exactly how the craft faltered. And they’re beginning the long wait for another chance—in six years the craft should have another shot at entering orbit.

If it misses the next window in six years, Akatsuki, which was launched into space May 20, risks entering the same graveyard as its predecessor Nozomi, the Japanese spacecraft launched in 1998 to explore Mars. The probe was put to rest after five years riddled with technical problems. [Wall Street Journal]

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Image: JAXA

MORE ABOUT: japan, JAXA, solar system, Venus

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]

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The Little Space Probe That Could: Hayabusa Brought Home Asteroid Dust

By Jennifer Welsh | November 16, 2010 12:13 pm

Hayabusa-dustSeven years after launch, Japan’s Hayabusa researchers can finally celebrate their success: The little asteroid probe has, really and truly, succeeded at its mission. Researchers announced that the probe’s payload capsule, retrieved in June, contains dust from the asteroid Itokawa that the probe visited in 2005.

Not only did it travel four billion miles with only one rest stop (becoming the first spacecraft to land on and lift away from an asteroid!), it also collected a sample of the asteroid dust and shuttled it back to earth three years after its scheduled landing date. It accomplished all this despite an instrument malfunction during the crucial sample collection maneuver, and serious engine trouble throughout the mission.

After analyzing more than 1,500 particles using scanning electron microscopes, researchers have announced that almost all of the specks of rock and dust (pictured here in the capsule) are of extraterrestrial origin. That’s a relief to scientists who feared that the dust might be earthly contaminants.

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How Japan's Success Reinvigorated Solar Sailing—and What Comes Next

By Andrew Moseman | July 22, 2010 10:26 am

MoriWhen Ikaros unfurled, it unfurled like a spinning top blossoming into a pinwheel. Out in space earlier this month, the center piece of Japan’s solar sail was rotating quickly when it began to extend the arms that had been wrapped up inside. As they stretched out into a stiff X shape, like the stakes that hold a kite taut, the craft slowed to a gentler rotation (a consequence of conservation of angular momentum, like the way a figure skater’s spin slows down when she extends her arms). The JAXA scientists then could let Ikaros stretch the shining sail into a square that spanned 66 feet diagonally.

When Ikaros unfurled, it also breathed new life into a technology that has been dreamed for decades—using the the pressure of sunlight itself to cruise the solar system, and perhaps beyond.

In Brooklyn this week, solar sail enthusiasts gathered for an international symposium. Last night Osamu Mori of the Ikaros team (seen above with a mock-up) was the toast of the party, and a group of experts joined him to celebrate and look forward to a bevy of new explorations. The roster included Planetary Society current director Louis Friedman and director-to-be Bill Nye, NASA’s Les Johnson, Malcolm McDowell of the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, and Roman Kezerashvili of the host New York City College of Technology.

“I feel like they deserve a ticker-tape parade here in New York City,” Friedman said, “rather than just showing up for a scientific conference.”

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MORE ABOUT: JAXA, lasers, NASA, solar sail, sun

Solar Sail Success! Japanese Spacecraft Propelled by the Sun’s Force

By Andrew Moseman | July 14, 2010 2:31 pm

JAXASolarSailIkaros hasn’t flown too close to the sun. It’s flown just close enough to ride the light.

Japan’s space agency JAXA confirmed on Friday that its solar sail project, Ikaros, achieved another of its goals: The sun’s photons pushed against the sail and accelerated the craft.

The effect stems from the cumulative push of light photons striking the solar sail. When measured together, it adds up to a small continuous thrust that does not require fuel use by the Ikaros craft. JAXA engineers used Doppler radar measurements of the Ikaros craft to determine that sunlight is pressing on the probe’s solar sail with a force of about 1.12 millinewtons (0.0002 pounds of force) [MSNBC].

Japan launched Ikaros in May and unfurled the sail in June. Now, JAXA scientists say, “with this confirmation, the IKAROS was proved to generate the biggest acceleration through photon during interplanetary flight in history.” Coming soon: A controlled flight in which the researchers turn the sail toward or away from the sun to control Ikaros’ velocity.

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Image: JAXA

MORE ABOUT: JAXA, solar sail, sun

Japan's Hayabusa Probe Brought Something Home, But Is It Asteroid Dust?

By Andrew Moseman | July 6, 2010 9:45 am

Hayabusa-dustYes, the Hayabusa mission’s sample container captured some tiny dust particles. No, we still don’t know whether those particles are the first bits of an asteroid ever returned to Earth by a spacecraft.

Scientists from Japan’s space agency, JAXA, have slowly and cautiously been prying open Hayabusa’s container. They have released photos that show particles trapped in there, none of which are larger than a millimeter, but at least 10 of which are visible to the naked eye. However, it may take months to know whether those came from the Itokawa asteroid that Hayabusa visited, or somewhere else.

Hayabusa project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi said scientists believed materials from Earth were among the particles found in the pod. “But it’s important that it wasn’t empty… I’m glad that there is the possibility” that some are from the asteroid, Kawaguchi told a press briefing [AFP].

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, Hayabusa, JAXA

Best Science Teacher Ever Tricks Students Into Joining NASA Mission

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2010 11:52 am

When Japan’s Hayabusa space probe returned home from a seven-year odyssey this month, we got to see the amazing video as it broke up in a brilliant flash in the atmosphere and deposited its sample container (hopefully containing asteroid material) in Australia. Three high school students from Massachusetts, however, got a much better view. They experienced it first hand, and helped make that video for the world to see, thanks to a little white lie told by their teacher.

Ron Dantowitz of Brookline, Massachusetts, gave the three a challenge: If you had to track an object entering the atmosphere at 27,000 miles per hour, how would you know where to look, how would you keep the camera trained on the careening object, and what could you learn about the temperatures the object encountered? After they worked on the project for half a year, Dantowitz let loose his secret—this was no hypothetical scenario. He and the three students got to fly on the DC-8 over Australia and help NASA film Hayabusa’s return.

“We had flown several practices, but when we took off for the real thing, I felt a surge of adrenaline,” says [James] Breitmeyer. “I was on the edge of my seat, anxious for our plane to arrive at the right place at the right time.”

“We got to the rendezvous area 30 minutes ahead of time,” says Dantowitz. “So we practiced the rendezvous to make sure everyone knew which stars to line the cameras up with to capture Hayabusa’s re-entry. By the time we finished the trial run, we had only 2 or 3 minutes to go” [NASA Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: asteroids, Hayabusa, JAXA, NASA

Japanese Probe Makes It Home! But Did It Collect Any Asteroid Dust?

By Andrew Moseman | June 14, 2010 9:19 am

hayabusaYou try coming home on time after traveling four billion miles.

Three years after its initially scheduled return date, Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft returned to Earth yesterday and dropped its collection canister in the Australian outback. The team from JAXA, Japan’s space agency, hopes that the container holds samples from Hayabusa’ 2005 landing on an asteroid called Itokawa. They won’t know for sure for a couple weeks, but Hayabusa has already made history by landing on an asteroid and returning to Earth.

(Check out DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait’s post featuring video footage of Hayabusa’s return in which the probe breaks up into a spectacular flash.)

The headline on JAXA’s website currently reads, “Welcome back HAYABUSA to Earth after overcoming various difficulties!” That’s putting it mildly:

Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007 but a series of technical glitches — including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of electricity-storing batteries — forced it to miss its window to maneuver into the Earth’s orbit until this year [AP].

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, Hayabusa, japan, JAXA

Today in Space: S. Korean Rocket Blows Up, Japanese Craft Spreads a Solar Sail

By Andrew Moseman | June 10, 2010 12:39 pm

JAXASolarSailSouth Korea’s attempt to jump into the space race met with disaster today. A little more than two minutes after takeoff today, the nation’s Naro rocket exploded. It had been carrying a satellite, and South Korea was vying to become the tenth country to put a satellite in orbit with rockets assembled at home.

South Korea has invested more than 500 billion won (400 million dollars) and much national pride in the 140-ton Naro-1. The liquid-fuelled first stage of the rocket was made in Russia, while the second stage was built domestically, as was the satellite [AFP].

In Japan, meanwhile, happier news: Last month its space agency, JAXA, launched a batch of new missions into space that included its solar sail project, called Ikaros. Today it unfurled the sail, seen above in the blinding light of the sun.

After separating from Akatsuki [a separate probe going on to Venus], Ikaros began unfolding four panels that, when fully unfurled, should look like a square kite measuring 66 feet (20 meters) along its diagonal. Pictures sent back by a camera mounted on the spacecraft’s hub show the extension of four booms holding the panels, plus the unfurling of sail material. This is the “primary deployment” of the sail. During the secondary stage of deployment, the sail is stretched out to its full extent [MSNBC].

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Japan's Venus-Bound Probe Will Hunt Volcanoes and Study Violent Storms

By Andrew Moseman | May 21, 2010 9:49 am

Solar SailVenus, meet Japan. Today the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched a rocket carrying several different missions bound for our boiling-hot sister planet. Here’s what they want to learn.

Atmospheric Tag Team

Akatsuki, the Venus climate probe, will arrive at the second planet from the sun in December. There it will team up with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe, using five cameras to peer down into the turbulent atmosphere and study Venus‘ maniacal meteorology.

One of the main goals is to understand the “super-rotation” of the Venus atmosphere, where violent winds drive storms and clouds at speeds of more than 220 mph (360 kilometers per hour), 60 times faster than the planet itself rotates [MSNBC].

The Venus Express’ own findings since it reached the planet in 2006 have bolstered the idea that Venus was once alive with plate tectonics, oceans, and continents—that is, it was once much more Earth-like than its current, sweaty incarnation. In fact, Venus may still be active.


It’s alive! It’s alive! (Maybe.)

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