After five-year detour, Akatsuki spacecraft is finally visiting Venus
For the last five years, the Akatsuki spacecraft has been in orbit in our solar system. The problem was that it was orbiting the Sun, and not Venus as it was designed to do. Fortunately, this mishap was not the end of the mission, and after some impromptu experiments near the Sun, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has managed to steer their spacecraft back to its original target, declaring it to finally be in orbit of Venus on December 7th, 2015.
Off to the wrong orbit
The original attempt to sync up with Venus in 2010 was disrupted thanks to salt. Five years earlier (to the day!), Akatsuki was supposed to fire its main engine to enter the second planet’s orbit. Unfortunately, salt had built up on a valve, blocking a connection to the fuel tank and breaking a ceramic nozzle. So rather than rocketing towards Venus, the craft was sent flying towards the Sun.
The team at JAXA didn’t give up though, and hoped to reposition Akatsuki using the remaining thrusters. These thrusters were only intended for making adjustments to the ship’s trajectory, and so are much smaller than engines built for travel. To help compensate, the main engine’s fuel supply was dumped, lightening the load and making piloting the spacecraft more manageable with the reduced horsepower. There’s a chance that the time spent near the Sun may have damaged systems not designed to be exposed to the Sun’s higher temperatures, but so far no obvious red flags have popped up.
At this point, the orbit still needs to be confirmed, but the spacecraft reported performing without a hitch. The expectation is that it will be a higher, more elliptical orbit than was originally planned in 2010, but that it should still be functional. The five cameras on board will still be able to monitor Venus’ dramatic, acidic atmosphere successfully, but it will likely take more time to gather data than JAXA would have liked. However, after the five-year wait, the fact that Akatsuki was able to get back from the Sun to a mere 20,000 mile orbit is probably thrilling on its own. Or as Sanjay Limaye, a participating scientist in Wisconsin put it, “Everyone is very happy.”
Source: Japan’s Venus orbiter makes comeback by Alexandra Witze, Nature News