We’re fond of our spacecraft and anxious when we send them on their way. It’s hard to lose one.

a large grey circle with an orange sliver to its left and a blue sliver beyond that on a black background
Akatsuki’s cameras were working fine two days after the spacecraft flew past Venus. Left to right: These images were taken at ultraviolet, near-infrared, and far-infrared wavelengths, respectively.

In July 2009, with a group of European and American scientists, I visited the Japanese Space Agency research center in Sagamihara, outside Tokyo, to meet with the scientists and engineers building the Venus Climate Orbiter, subsequently named Akatsuki. We planned joint observations with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft, which went into orbit in 2006.

A highlight of this trip was seeing the spacecraft itself under construction. As we donned our slippers, bunny suits, and masks to enter the clean room, there was a feeling of reverence. The innards of the machine were splayed out on three panels, dense with wires, instruments, lenses, and sensors. Behind us was the “spacecraft bus,” the solid shell within which all of these elegant instruments and electronics would be folded — high-tech origami. Standing inches from the partly assembled craft, I thought, “This thing is going to Venus!” And it did. Only it didn’t get to stay.

In late 2010 I became an official member of the Akatsuki team as the spacecraft was about to enter Venus orbit and begin a multi-year study of the planet’s turbulent atmosphere and volcanic surface. I was on a NASA project to use Akatsuki data to study the interaction between volcanoes, clouds, and climate on Venus, and to spread word of the results to the American public. 

And then, on December 7th, in a heartbreaking 12 minutes, it was all over. Something went terribly wrong during the critical orbital-insertion rocket burn. Once engineers got a handle on what had happened, it was too late — Akatsuki was receding from Venus on a new orbit around the Sun. 

A few images taken while still in close range showed the great promise of the instruments, which magnified our sadness. This was such a wonderful spacecraft, so well equipped to undertake a groundbreaking investigation of our neighboring world, in good health and fully functioning, having made it tens of millions of miles across the void, and now careening helplessly in the wrong direction.

But we may have another opportunity. Akatsuki will swing by Venus again in 5 years. Just maybe — if the problem can be successfully analyzed and corrected for, and if nothing else breaks — the Japanese can try again. Akatsuki is not quite dead. It’s a space ghost; its path is precisely known and predictable, but beyond human control. 

What will happen to the team of brilliant scientists and engineers in Japan, some of who have worked for more than a decade on this project? A 6-year cruise phase is not unusual — that’s often how long it takes to reach destinations in the more distant outer solar system. But this is an unplanned 6-year hiatus in a project, with uncertain prospects of resurrection. Team members will move on to other things, and perhaps they will reassemble in some form 6 years hence to try again.

What will our world and its space programs look like in 6 years when Akatsuki again approaches Venus? Currently, several proposals are under consideration for new Venus orbiters, landers, or balloons that might arrive at Venus in the 2017 time frame. So Akatsuki may indeed have company, and possibilities for joint observation, if and when it’s able to resume its mission.

This article originally appeared in print in the April 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope.


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