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December 8, 2010 1:55 pm

Japanese probe misses Venus orbit

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Japan’s space agency suffered a serious setback when a flagship space probe failed to make orbit around Venus, but patient officials hope the craft might succeed next time it approaches the planet – in six years' time.

The probe project’s problems are a heavy blow to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa), which is already under budget pressure from ruling party politicians seeking to reduce the nation’s huge fiscal deficit.

“We are very sorry for failing to meet the public’s expectations,” said Masato Nakamura, Jaxa project leader, his exhausted appearance testimony to the tense night technicians spent establishing the status of a probe that cost more than Y24bn ($285m) to develop and launch.

Jaxa has long pursued one of the world’s boldest space exploration programmes, but the agency is still struggling to shake off a reputation for high costs and the embarrassing rocket and mission failures.

The Akatsuki – or “sunrise” – probe was on a high-profile quest to study the weather on Venus, a mission that could add considerably to knowledge about the planet and create a reference for terrestrial climate research.

But the spacecraft did not brake sufficiently on Wednesday to enter Venus’ orbit, instead soaring onward on a solitary course around the sun.

Makoto Miwada, Jaxa spokesman, said full communications with the Akatsuki probe had been restored and the agency was working to establish the cause of an altitude control problem that appears to have prevented it from firing its rocket engine long enough.

The agency is hopeful Akatsuki will get a second chance when its new orbit round the sun and that of Venus next intersect in December 2016.

Success will require fixing the original problem and careful husbanding of the probe’s remaining fuel and electrical power, but Jaxa has a track record when it comes to mission comebacks.

A string of engine and communication problems repeatedly threatened to doom a 2003 attempt to collect the first samples from an asteroid, but the Hayabusa probe returned safely to Earth in June after a seven-year multibillion kilometre odyssey.

Jaxa was able to declare the mission a success after microscopic specks of asteroid dust were found to have made it into the probe’s hold in spite of the malfunctioning of its sample-collecting apparatus.

Jaxa’s pioneering test of the use of light as a form of space propulsion is also proceeding smoothly. Ikaros – a miniature “space yacht” that was launched along with Akatsuki – has already unfurled its intricately folded 20m-wide polyimide sail to harness the gentle but constant force exerted by photons from the sun.

“It’s the first time for mankind to sail with sunlight,” Mr Miwada said.

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