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Japanese Spacecraft Gets Rare Second Chance to Visit Venus

After five years orbiting the sun, Akatsuki fired its thrusters and headed for Venus. (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA)
After five years orbiting the sun, Akatsuki fired its thrusters and headed for Venus — a second time. (Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA)

In space exploration, second chances are rare. Yet today, just before 4 p.m. U.S. Pacific time, a Japanese spacecraft called Akatsuki fired its thrusters and attempted to rendezvous with Venus.

An hour later, the team commanding the spacecraft shared some good news.

“It is in orbit!!” reported Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is working with the science team in Sagamihara, Japan.

This isn’t the first time Akatsuki has attempted to orbit Earth’s twisted sister – that happened five years ago to the day, in December 2010. Back then, though, something went horribly wrong. Instead of putting on the brakes and pulling into orbit, Akatsuki zoomed past Venus without stopping. Engineers would later determine that a valve in the spacecraft’s propulsion system had cracked, rendering the main engine useless. But the team didn’t give up, and instead decided to let Akatsuki try again…even though it meant waiting half a decade.

akatsuki_cartoon_ill-be-back
(JAXA)

Today, Akatsuki relied on a set of smaller thrusters to head toward Venus. Four of those thrusters were programmed to fire for about 20 minutes, gently adjusting the spacecraft’s course so it could be captured by the planet’s gravity. If all went well, the spacecraft’s new orbit around Venus should take it between roughly 5,000 and 300,000 kilometers of the planet’s surface.

“We had a perfect operation!” says project manager Masato Nakamura, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

That’s not as close to the cloud-shrouded planet as scientists had originally planned, but the team says it should be able to complete its science objectives as long as Akatsuki is healthy. From its perch, the spacecraft will study Venus’s dense, toxic atmosphere, which whips around the planet at speeds exceeding 300 kilometers per hour (faster than Venus rotates.)

“We have to wait another two days to confirm the orbit,” Nakamura says. “I am very optimistic. It is important to believe in success!”

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