Sad news for the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) yesterday, as they announced that the Akatsuki mission to Venus had failed to achieve orbit around Venus. The probe, which was launched on 21 May 2010, will be left to wander in its current orbit around the Sun for six years until it drifts into a suitable position for a second attempt.
Akatsuki is an orbiter, intended to study the Venusian atmosphere. It’s eventual destination is a highly elliptical orbit around Venus, in which its altitude above the planet’s surface will vary from 300km to 80,000km. It will specifically look for signs of lightning and active volcanoes.
As one of the final stages of delivering the probe to Venus, it was scheduled to fire its experimental new rocket engine for a little over nine minutes to accelerate to a point where it could neatly settle into an orbit around Venus. From there it would have performed a series of orbital corrections to position it according to mission parameters, and begin collecting scientific data. Unfortunately it appears the engine cut out shortly after the two minute mark, leaving it in a Solar orbit closer to the Sun than Venus. The onboard computer put itself into safe mode as soon as it detected the anomaly. It was difficult to regain contact with Akatsuki as it was left slowly spinning so that the antenna was only pointed towards earth for forty seconds every ten minutes.
Now, two days later, JAXA mission scientists have re-established contact with the probe and regained control. It still carries 80% of its fuel load, and all electronics are healthy. They now only need to be patient – it’s lower solar orbit means that it is moving faster than Venus and will catch it up again in about six years time. Some time around the end of 2016, a second attempt will be made and hopefully the mission can be salvaged. Personally I’m quite confident in Jaxa’s abilities – when we look at how admirably they managed to keep the disastrous Hayabusa mission running to the bitter end and still collect useful specimens, I don’t doubt that the Akatsuki team will shine through adversity.
To help ameliorate the disapointment, why not build your own paper model Akatsuki? JAXA have this template available on their website – simply print it out in full duplex (so that both sides of the page are used), cut out the parts and assemble. The instructions are in japanese, but the diagrams look clear enough.