June 14, 2024

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Our only mission on Venus may have just arrived

Our only mission on Venus may have just arrived
Zoom in / Processed image of Venus taken by the Akatsuki spacecraft.

JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Kevin M. Gill

Japanese space agency JAXA, confirmed Wednesday It lost contact with its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus.

The space agency said in its update that it failed to make contact in late April after the spacecraft had difficulty maintaining its attitude. This likely means that there is some sort of propulsion problem with the spacecraft that prevents it from being able to point itself toward Earth.

The agency added: “Since then, we have implemented various measures to restore service, but communications have not been made yet.” “We are currently working to restore communications.” The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency added that it will announce further measures, if any, once a decision is made.

The potential loss of the Akatsuki spacecraft, a relatively small 320-kg probe with a mass slightly larger than a consumer dishwasher, would be notable for several reasons. First, it would mark the end of a courageous mission that overcame a major failure a decade ago to enter orbit around Venus. Second, it would mean losing the only human spacecraft currently orbiting Venus.

Failure in orbit

The Akatsuki mission was launched aboard an H2-A rocket in 2010 and was Japan’s first interplanetary mission in more than a decade after Nozomi’s failed mission to Mars. But after reaching orbit, the spacecraft’s main engine failed to successfully lower its orbit. The engine burned for about three minutes instead of 12, leaving the spacecraft in orbit around the sun instead of Venus.

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Over time, Japanese mission planners developed a new option for entering orbit around the planet. The main engine did not work, and to reduce the mass of the spacecraft, they threw 65 kg of oxidizer into the sea. With the craft’s reduced mass, operators planned to use Akatsuki’s four hydrazine-powered control engines to insert the craft into an elliptical orbit around Venus.

In the end, the plan worked. The spacecraft was placed in a 10-day orbit around the planet, with its closest approach at about 400 kilometres. This allowed scientists to start collecting data in 2016 about the planet and its atmosphere. In 2018, the mission’s life was extended, and it continued to collect data until the spring of this year.

Eyes only on Venus

Akatsuki is the only spacecraft currently operating on Venus. Two solar probes, one built by NASA and the other by the European Space Agency, fly intermittently around Venus for gravitational assistance, but they do not study the planet in a meaningful way. Apart from this, we are oblivious to the events of the planet closest to Earth in our solar system.

There are six missions in development, but no specific launch date has been set for any later this decade.

In addition, there is one spacecraft on its way to Venus, the ambitious European spacecraft BepiColombo. Launched in 2018 at a mission cost of $2 billion, there’s a lot riding on the spacecraft. However, there are questions about BepiColombo after its solar electric propulsion system failed to operate at full capacity. Two weeks ago, one of the spacecraft’s managers told Ars that they were still studying the feasibility of reaching orbit around Venus at this reduced thrust.

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Hopefully the answers to this question, and the ultimate fate of the Akatsuki, will come soon.