UPDATE: Venus Probe Lost in Space: JAXA’s Latest Lemon

01/13/2011
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UPDATE: Jan. 14 – Coming right on the heels of the Akatsuki failure, the Japanese government announced it will conduct a fundamental review of its space exploration policy. Although the timing might be coincidental, it points to possible deep budget cuts and a change in direction for JAXA.

In view of the strong budgetary constraints facing Japan, The Special Review Committee of the Japanese Space Program Strategic Planning Commission has been tasked to reduce the policy initiatives of Japan’s space program.

Japan’s current space program rests on planning carried out in 2009 based on Japan’s Space Exploration Act of 2008. It called for doubling the number of launches currently carried out with a goal of 34 launches in the following five years. The objectives were scientific study of the earth, advance warning of natural disasters and the exploration of outer space.

The program was slated to cost about 2.5 trillion yen (28 billion dollars) funded by government and private resources during that period. However in the face of deep cuts in all areas of government revenue and expenditure, this outlay now is unreasonable. The Special Review Committee is due to issue their recommendations for changes in Japan’s space program in June.

TOKYO (majirox news) – Japan’s trouble plagued space agency, JAXA, on December 8 had another space probe go wrong. After a flawless lift off on top of a H-2A rocket from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center on May 20, Akatsuki, which was to orbit around Venus to study its atmosphere and volcanism, failed to orbit.

“The engines fired for only 3 minutes or less, which was not enough to put Akatsuki into Venus orbit,” said a JAXA official at a press conference December 10. “A minimum firing of 12 minutes was required.”

The nozzle of the main thruster of Akatsuki probably exploded shortly into the burn. The satellite shut itself down automatically and went into a slow 10-minute rotation. According to the most recent JAXA press releases, Akatsuki is spinning out of control between the Sun and Venus. The probe goes around the sun 11 times for every 10 times Venus does.

Akatsuki’s orbit will cross the orbit of Venus in another seven years. JAXA scientists hope the probe can then be inserted in an orbit around Venus.

However, there are two problems: the instruments on Akatsuki were designed for a four to five-year lifespan and it is unknown how much fuel has been expended or how much damage occurred to the engines. Of the 480 kilogram weight of Akatsuki, only 34 kilograms are scientific instruments, the rest is fuel.

If the hypothesis of a destroyed exhaust nozzle is correct, after seven years, even if they can fire the rockets, it’s unknown if there is enough fuel to put it in Venus’s orbit or fire or direct it with a broken exhaust nozzle

JAXA has scrambled to come up with a new, face saving mission for Akatsuki.

“Little data has been gathered on asteroids with orbital paths between the Earth and the Sun by space probes,” said a JAXA spokesman. “JAXA is calculating a path that will enable Akatsuki to travel towards Venus after approaching the asteroids.”

In short, an ad hoc mission has been found for Akatsuki. Rather than observing the atmosphere of Venus and searching for the existence of lightening and volcanism, which would follow up on the discoveries of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express space probe of 2007, the Akatsuki is now being sent to explore asteroids.

Exploring Asteroids

There are a surprising number of asteroids in our solar system, somewhere around 264,000 and the vast majority of them are in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Only about 1,600 of these come close enough to the earth to be classified as “PHA”, potentially hazardous asteroids. These intercept or come near the earth’s orbit at some point.

The idea of Akatsuki observing asteroids between the Earth and Sun sounds good, until you know a bit more about Akatsuki and asteroids. Asteroids are basically big rocks that circle the Sun.

“Asteroids are made of silicate rock, like rocks on earth, and of metal (mostly iron and nickel),” noted Dr. Stepan Maran, an award winning astrophysicist and one of the designers of the Hubble space telescope. “Some asteroids may also contain carbon bearing rock. They have no atmosphere and the vast majority of them are safely beyond the orbit of Mars in an area called the Asteroid Belt.”

The mission of Akatsuki was to study the atmosphere, lightening and possible volcanism of Venus. The scientific payload of Akatsuki consisted of six instruments including a lightening and airglow camera (LAC) and five other types of cameras that photographed in the ultraviolet and microwave range to pierce Venus’ atmosphere to varying depths.

The Atmosphere of Venus is 15 kilometers thick of clouds made up of concentrated sulfuric acid. A constant rain of sulfuric acid rain falls from these clouds to its surface, which is 463 degrees Centigrade and has 93 times the atmospheric pressure of earth.

The contrast between what Akatsuki was designed to do, and what JAXA is suggesting as a legitimate alternative mission is striking. None of the instruments aboard Akatsuki were designed to observe lifeless, airless rocks spinning through space. Whether Akatsuki is used as an asteroid chaser or not seems irrelevant.

Akasuki doesn’t appear to have any instrumentation capable of sending back useful scientific data on asteroids. There are many questions about what this new mission will accomplish.

We will have to wait and see if Akatsuki’s engine does fire seven years from now, an engine that by JAXA’s admission is probably heavily damaged and long past its planned lifespan.

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