Akatsuki spacecraft shares its first set of photos from Venus
The Akatsuki spacecraft has just (finally?) arrived at Venus, and already shared data on a new, mysterious feature in the planet’s inhospitable atmosphere. This is a bit thrilling to the team from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA,) who at one point worried that they’d never see a single image of the the second planet, after narrowly recovering from losing the probe’s primary engine years ago. Fortunately, our neighbor in the solar system has so much left to explore, even a compromised mission should yield heaps for novel information.
The trouble with exploring and mapping Venus normally isn’t in making the trip, but rather getting data beyond the harsh atmospheric conditions that basically obscure any view of the planet itself. There’s some oxygen and nitrogen, but also crushing amounts of carbon dioxide, which increases the surface air pressure to 90 times what you’d find on Earth. More familiar is the warming effect of this CO2 buildup, although thanks to the proportions involved, we thankfully have yet to experience anything like the constant 872° Fahrenheit on the sunny side of the planet. All this is then compounded by the clouds of sulfuric acid being blown around at around 224 miles-per-hour. Except, as Akatsuki found, when they’re strangely slowing down over just one part of the planet.
Weird clouds defying the wind
In the first batch of photos from Akatsuki’s ultraviolet camera, a strange “bow shaped” cloud formation immediately caught people’s eye. The anomaly stretched from the planet’s north to south poles with a slight curvature. The main clue to its source is that it wasn’t circulating at the speed of the other clouds, but was instead moving closer to the speed of the planet below. This might mean that some kind of geological feature, like an extreme mountain range, is interfering with the winds at this location, but without more data it’s too soon to say.
That data should be forthcoming as Akatsuki settles into its mission. Right now it has a nine-day orbit around Venus, which involves a fair amount of time further away from the planet than researchers would like, but right now they can’t be too picky. High-detail photos will still be possible thanks to the time the probe is close to the planet, but they’ll have to happen on a slower schedule than originally planned. Beyond tightening the orbit a bit, the remaining complication the JAXA team is planning for is when they need to reposition in two years to avoid getting stuck in Venus’ shadow, limiting the spacecrafts’ solar charging.
Source: Rescued Japanese spacecraft delivers first results from Venus by Elizabeth Gibney, Nature News & Comment