Japanese Spacecraft to Attempt Venus Comeback in December

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Japanese Spacecraft to Attempt Venus Comeback in December

A Japanese spacecraft will get a second chance to orbit Venus this December, five years after zooming past the planet on its first try.

The Akatsuki Venus probe was supposed to begin circling Earth’s hellishly hot sister planet in December 2010, but the craft’s main engine failed during the crucial orbital-insertion burn.

Akatsuki has been orbiting the sun ever since, waiting for another shot at Venus. And now officials at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have settled on a date for the comeback attempt: Dec. 7. [Photos of Venus, the Mysterious Planet Next Door]

The Blistering Surface of Venus

Credit: NASA
Although Venus is only the planet second nearest the sun, its dense, toxic atmosphere traps heat in a runaway version of the greenhouse effect that warms up the Earth. As a result, temperatures on Venus reach 870 degrees F (465 degrees C), more than hot enough to melt lead.

Akatsuki’s main engine is dead, so the probe will try to achieve orbit on that date using its smaller attitude-control thrusters, mission team members have said. If the maneuver works, Akatsuki will slip into a highly elliptical orbit that completes one lap around Venus every eight to nine days. (The original mission plan called for a 30-hour orbital period.)

Surface of Venus by Venera 13

Credit: NASA
The right half of the panoramic view of the surface of Venus from the Venera 13 lander.

Akatsuki, whose name means “dawn” in Japanese, will then study Venus’ atmosphere with a variety of instruments, gathering data about the planet’s clouds, air circulation patterns and other characteristics.

“When flying further away from Venus, or about 10 times the radius of Venus from the planet, the Akatsuki will continuously observe Venus as a whole to understand its clouds, deep atmosphere and surface conditions,” JAXA officials wrote in a mission update in February. “When flying closer to Venus, or less than 10 times the radius of Venus, the orbiter will conduct close-up observations to clarify cloud convection, the distribution of minute undulatory motions and their changes.”

Planetary Protection Study Group Mulls Life On Venus

Credit: NASA/GSFC
NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter took this false color image of Venus’ clouds during its mission circling the cloudy world from 1979 into 1992. Some scientists have speculated that the planet’s clouds might be a cozy habitat for microbial life.

The $300 million Akatsuki probe launched in May 2010 on a mission to help researchers better understand how Venus, which was similar to Earth in the solar system’s early days, ended up so hot and seemingly inhospitable to life.

Akatsuki blasted off on the same rocket as JAXA’s IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft, which became the first probe ever to travel through deep space using a solar sail.

The Akatsuki mission marks Japan’s second attempt to explore another planet with a robotic space probe. The nation’s first interplanetary spacecraft, the Nozomi Mars orbiter, also experienced problems after its launch, which occurred in 1998.

A valve malfunction caused a significant amount of Nozomi’s fuel to be lost, scuttling a planned 1999 Mars arrival. JAXA then worked to get Nozomi into orbit around the Red Planet in December 2003 but was unable to pull it off.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us@Spacedotcom,Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com

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