When 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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Japan’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]
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.)
The moment you read this, volcanic eruptions could be happening on Venus.
Planetary astronomers have been debating whether Venus is or was geologically active, and whether the geologic hotspots previous missions saw mean that Venus is one of the few places in the solar system to have experienced volcanism. Now, according to data from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, there’s every reason to believe that Venus not only has been geologically active and volcanic during its lifetime, but also might still be today, according to Jörn Helbert, coauthor of the study in Science. “The solidified lava flows, which radiate heat from the surface, seem hardly weathered. So we can conclude that they are younger than 2.5 million years old — and the majority are probably younger than 250,000 years…. In geological terms, this means that they are practically from the present day” [Wired.com].
A European spacecraft that has been peering through the thick, roiling clouds of Venus for the past three years has found further evidence that the inhospitable planet once had oceans, volcanoes, and a system of plate tectonics similar to those at work on Earth. The Venus Express has mapped the planet’s southern hemisphere using infrared imaging, and found heat variations in the surface rocks, which allows researchers to speculate on the chemical composition of those rocks. Different surfaces radiate different amounts of heat at infrared wavelengths due to a material characteristic known as emissivity, which varies in different materials [SPACE.com].
In certain highland areas, researchers detected cooler patches of rock whose thermal signatures resemble those of granites on Earth. On our own planet, granites are made during the process of rock recycling that goes on at the edges of the great geologic plates that cover the Earth. At the boundaries of these plates, ancient rock is pulled deep into the planet, reworked with water and then re-surfaced at volcanoes. Critically, then, if there is granite on Venus, there must also have been an ocean and a process of plate movement in the past [BBC News].
Is planetary Armageddon just a matter of time? Will Earth meet its fiery doom when the orbits of the planets in our solar system become destabilized, leading Mars, Mercury, or Venus to crash into our home turf? A new study predicts that there is indeed a very slim possibility that such a cataclysm will rock our world, but notes that the possible collisions wouldn’t happen for more than 3 billion years, by which time humans may be long gone. “I see the results as a case of the glass being 99 percent full and 1 percent empty…. While it’s possible that a collision could occur billions of years from now, it’s actually very unlikely” [SPACE.com], says Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer who wasn’t involved in the current research.
Astronomers had thought that the orbits of the planets were predictable. But 20 years ago, researchers showed that there were slight fluctuations in their paths. Now, the team has shown how in a small proportion of cases these fluctuations can grow until after several million years, the orbits of the inner planets begin to overlap [BBC News]. The researchers simulated the interactions of the eight major planets, Pluto, and the moon over the course of 5 billion years, up until our sun is expected to expand into a red giant. The simulation, described in the study published in Nature, covered more than 2,500 possible futures.
The planet Venus may not have always been the hot and barren ball of rock that we see today. A new analysis of its surface indicates that it might once have had oceans of liquid water–which could have allowed for a brief flourishing of microbial life.
Researchers examined nighttime infrared emissions coming from Venus’ surface, and found that the planet’s highland regions emit less infrared radiation than its lowland regions. One interpretation of this lower infrared emission from the highlands, say the authors, is that they are composed largely of ‘felsic’ rocks, particularly granite. Granite, which on Earth is found in continental crust, requires water for its formation…. “This is the first direct evidence that early in the history of the Solar System, Venus was a habitable planet with plenty of water,” says [astrobiologist] Dirk Schulze-Makuch…. “The question is how long Venus remained habitable. But this gives new impetus for the search for microbial life in Venus’s lower atmosphere” [Nature News].