Japan’s Akatsuki Spacecraft Loses Contact, Threatening Venus Mission

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on May 31, 2024 07:30
Japan's Akatsuki Spacecraft Loses Contact, Threatening Venus Mission

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has confirmed the loss of communication with its Akatsuki spacecraft, the only active mission currently studying Venus. This development puts the future of Venus exploration in jeopardy, as Akatsuki has been a crucial source of data about the planet's atmosphere and climate.

Mission Background and Challenges

Launched on May 21, 2010, aboard an H2-A rocket, Akatsuki, also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter, was designed to study the atmospheric phenomena of Venus, including the search for lightning within its thick clouds and signs of active volcanism.

Despite a troubled start, where the spacecraft failed to enter Venus’s orbit due to a main engine malfunction, JAXA engineers successfully managed a second attempt, placing Akatsuki into orbit around Venus on December 7, 2015, after five years of orbiting the Sun. This achievement was a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the mission team, who had to devise a novel method of orbital insertion using the spacecraft's smaller thrusters.

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Since then, Akatsuki has provided valuable insights into Venus’s harsh atmospheric conditions. The spacecraft’s instruments have been instrumental in observing weather patterns, cloud dynamics, and surface characteristics, contributing significantly to our understanding of Venusian climatology.

The data collected by Akatsuki have helped scientists better understand the super-rotating atmosphere of Venus, where winds circulate the planet much faster than its rotation, a phenomenon that remains one of the most intriguing aspects of Venusian weather.

Current Situation of Japan's Spacecraft "Akatsuki"

The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) reported on X Wednesday, May 29, that they had "lost contact with Akatsuki after an operation in late April due to an extended period of low attitude stability control mode, and is currently making efforts to reestablish communication with the spacecraft."

Efforts to re-establish contact have been ongoing, but so far, they have been unsuccessful. This situation is particularly challenging because precise orientation is crucial for Akatsuki to direct its communications antenna towards Earth, a requirement for sending and receiving data.

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JAXA has indicated that the spacecraft had already exceeded its designed lifespan of 4.5 years, having operated for nearly 14 years since its launch. The agency is now deliberating on the next steps and how to address the spacecraft's operational challenges. "We are currently considering our future response.

We will announce our policy as soon as it has been decided," JAXA stated. The loss of contact is a significant blow, as Akatsuki was conducting extended missions to study atmospheric waves and the distribution of trace gases in Venus's atmosphere, which are key to understanding the planet’s climatic and geological history.

Scientific Contributions

Akatsuki has exceeded expectations by continuing its mission well beyond its initial timeline, entering an extended phase of operations in 2018. The spacecraft has provided unprecedented data on Venus's climate, including the detection of large-scale atmospheric waves and unusual cloud patterns.

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These findings have enhanced our understanding of Venus’s meteorological processes and have been critical in comparing the planet’s climatic conditions to those of Earth. For example, Akatsuki's observations of the infrared emissions from the planet's night side have revealed dynamic atmospheric activities and variations in cloud cover, which are essential for constructing accurate models of Venus's climate.

The potential loss of Akatsuki leaves a significant gap in Venus exploration, as it is currently the only operational probe dedicated to studying our neighboring planet. Its suite of instruments, including cameras and spectrometers designed to capture detailed images and analyze the composition of Venus’s atmosphere, has provided scientists with a wealth of information that would be difficult to replicate with ground-based observations alone.

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The data from Akatsuki have also shed light on the planet's mysterious 'pioneer anomaly,' a discrepancy in its gravitational field that may hint at underlying geophysical processes.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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