Akatsuki (“Dawn”), also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter (VCO) and Planet-C, is a Japanese (JAXA) space probe tasked to study the atmosphere of Venus.
Launched on 20 May 2010 Akatsuki failed to enter Venus’s orbit as planned. Undeterred, JAXA planned a re-entry opportunity which required the probe orbit the Sun for five years until planetary alignment favoured a second and final attempt.
With its main engine is dead the probe woils have to try to achieve orbit using its smaller attitude-control thrusters to slip into a highly elliptical orbit completing one lap around Venus every eight to nine days.
Amazingly, the recovery plan worked and a few days ago, on the 7th December, the probe entered a lower than anticipated, but stable, elliptical Venusian orbit.
Throughout the extended mission Akatsuki’s crucial TT&C, containing TRAK produced isolators and circulators, performed flawlessly; preserving control over the spacecraft as it made several unplanned precision manoeuvres throughout a journey that lasted 5 years longer than planned.
Akatsuki marks Japan’s second attempt to explore another planet with a robotic space probe after the nation’s first interplanetary spacecraft, the Nozomi Mars orbiter (and TRAK’s 3rd participation aboard an interplanetary probe) experienced problems after its launch in 1998 after a valve malfunction caused a significant amount of Nozomi’s fuel to be lost, scuttling its planned 1999 Mars arrival which, despite JAXA’s repeated attempts to recover the mission, resulted in the Nozumi mission being declared ‘lost’ in 2003.
Akatsuki will study the stratification of the atmosphere, atmospheric dynamics, and cloud physics and Japanese scientists have released the first views of Venus captured by the Akatsuki spacecraft shortly after it arrived in orbit this week and in doing so setting the stage for regular observations of the planet’s blistering atmosphere over the next few years.
Congratulations JAXA and Mitsubishi.