Not Giving Up

Japan’s Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter remains in touch with its controllers, who are working hard to find out why its propulsion system failed to put it in orbit around the planet last month.

At the same time, they are looking for a way to continue the mission, either by using the remaining fuel on board to enter orbit later or to retargeting the probe to one or more Venus-crossing asteroids or, more likely, both.

“Fortunately, we still have maintained contact with the Akatsuki, thus the mission has not been terminated,” said Project Manager Masato Nakamura after the failed orbital insertion. “We are, first of all, investigating the cause so that we will not repeat the same mistake in future missions. Meanwhile, we are striving to keep the AKATSUKI flying in a stable manner in its current status.”

The spacecraft has already returned images of its missed target, looking back to demonstrate that its cameras and other instruments will work when the time comes.


And Japanese newspapers report that Nakamura’s team already is refining its strategy for a recovery. The probe is in an orbit that takes it around the Sun faster than Venus, raising hopes for another attempt to slow down enough to enter Venus orbit when the planet catches up.

Originally, that would have taken about six years. However, controllers now believe that if they use the remaining fuel to slow Akatsuki a little at a time, the planet can catch up in five years for another attempt. Meanwhile, it may be able to investigate some asteroids.

Until engineers determine the exact cause of the failure — perhaps a leaky valve or damage to the thruster nozzles — the precise trajectory really can’t be set. But given the spectacular recovery of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission, it’s a fairly safe bet the Japanese orbiter will get a look into the clouds of Venus eventually.


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