You are here

Moon and Venus

December 6, 2015

In the space exploration business, you seldom get a do-over. But the Japanese space agency is hoping for just that. A spacecraft that failed to enter orbit around Venus five years ago today may be able to do so soon.

Akatsuki was launched in 2010. It was scheduled to enter orbit around Venus on December 6th of that year. From that perch, it would use an infrared camera to peer through the planet’s clouds and study its dense, hot atmosphere.

Akatsuki would also look for hints of active volcanoes on the surface, and listen for the crackle of lightning in the atmosphere.

But an engine failure scuttled those plans. The craft continued to orbit the Sun, though, and controllers worked out a plan to bring it close to Venus this month. If all goes well, it’ll enter orbit in the next day or two. It’ll be much farther from Venus than originally planned, so its view of the planet won’t be as sharp. And many of its systems have degraded during its time in space.

What’s more, some of Akatsuki’s mission has been accomplished by a European craft, which completed its work a year ago. It confirmed that Venus’s clouds produce lightning, and found strong evidence of active volcanoes.

Still, nudging Akatsuki into orbit would be a big achievement — giving a planetary explorer a second chance.

And the probe’s target is in great view — it’s the “morning star.” Tomorrow, it’s close to the lower left of the crescent Moon — a beautiful pairing in the dawn sky.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.