The Little Spacecraft That Could

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The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has a budding space program that is becoming both more developed and more successful after some difficult starts. But one of the greatest engineering and computer programming feats of Japan’s space program is the country’s successful redo of a failed mission to Venus.

Japan’s H-IIA rocket launches the Akatsuki Venus probe from Tanegashima Space Center on May 20, 2010. The same rocket also launched Ikaros, the first solar sail.

In 2010, the Japanese space agency launched the Akatsuki spacecraft to Venus to study the planet’s atmosphere. Part of the mission was to explore how a 12-mile-thick cloud of sulfuric acid rotates around the planet 60 times faster than Venus itself is moving. Then in December 2010, as the spacecraft fired its main engine to insert itself into orbit around Venus, the intended 12-minute burn lasted only three minutes and the craft kept going — into a huge orbit around the sun.

It has been a long wait for Japanese engineers at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science to get a chance to re-insert the craft into Venus’ orbit, but after 10 orbits around the sun and five years since the main engine burned itself up, they finally got their chance. On Dec. 7, they fired the craft’s small attitude thrusters for 20 minutes and successfully launched Akatsuki, which means dawn, into orbit around Venus.

The new orbit is far from what was originally intended because it is highly elliptical and places the craft nearly 200,000 miles away at its farthest point. Nonetheless, Akatsuki should be able to accomplish most of its original intended work, though much of it will be at a lower resolution because of distances.

In the last decade or so, only two spacecraft have visited Venus, the first a European Space Agency Venus Express mission, launched in 2006. It too was sent to study Venus’ atmosphere, which is a mysterious hot dense cloud of mostly carbon dioxide. Akatsuki also will study the superrotation of acidic clouds, which defy principles of physics, as well as the atmosphere’s temperature gradients, lightning and composition.

Although Venus is similar to Earth in size, its atmosphere is extremely hot — about 900 degrees F, even hotter than Mercury, which is far closer to the sun. Venus is often cited as an example of what Earth could become if a runaway greenhouse gas scenario unfolded here. Astronomers have long puzzled over why Earth and Venus, so close in size and mass, developed so differently.

Akatsuki may help answer some of their questions when it begins full operation in April.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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