The Little Space Probe That Could
Now, after 5 years of operation for which it was not designed, closer orbit of the sun for which it was not designed, and a 20 minute long Venus orbit insertion burn, using its attitude control thrusters, for which they were not designed, the probe has finally arrived close to where it should be. It orbits Venus high and elliptical, swinging out from about 400 km to 1000 times that at around 400,000 km, but after 5 years lost in space they’re just happy that Akatsuki is safely on station. After one more orbital adjustment in March it will start the scientific portion of its unexpectedly long mission.
This is the only probe that anyone has orbiting Venus, and will be JAXA’s first successful mission to another planet. Its five instruments (we all hope that none of them were cooked during Akatsuki’s close brush with the sun!) will gather data of immeasurable value, increasing our understanding of the climates of both Venus and Earth.
They also refer to Akatsuki as Planet-C, since they regard it as their their third planetary explorer. JAXA’s first, SUISEI, or Planet-A, successfully studied the coma of Halley’s Comet back in 1986. It’s second, NOZOMI, or Planet-B, failed its insertion into Mars orbit and currently orbits the sun near Mars. It performed some science of the Earth, moon, and the interplanetary medium however. A deeper description of the adventures of NOZOMI can be found here (http://www.isas.jaxa.jp/e/enterp/missions/nozomi/status_01.shtml). Mars is the Skeleton Coast of exploration spacecraft, so JAXA is in good company on that score. Though this mission was ultimately a failure, it failed heroically.
Akatsuki joins SUISEI, JAXA’s participation in the ISS project, the highly successful HAYABUSA asteroid probe, and their KAGUYA Lunar orbiter on the list of JAXA’s great achievements in space.
May there be many more.