Japan’s Akatsuki probe enters Venus’s orbit after floating through space for five years

By Rick Stella

After spending the last five years essentially lost in space, the Japanese probe Akatsuki fired up its engines this last weekend in hopes of finally entering the orbit of Venus. Though the craft previously reached Earth’s sister back in December of 2010, a faulty engine valve failed to propel the craft fast enough to catch the planet’s orbit, effectively closing its window of opportunity. Now, five years later, engineers at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed the wayward Akatsuki spacecraft is now officially orbiting Venus.

During Akatsuki’s 2010 attempt, instead of positioning itself to fly into Venus’s elliptical equatorial orbit, the spacecraft’s malfunctioning engine’s prevented it from properly braking. Falling fuel pressure and a decrease in thrust improperly positioned the craft and before long, Akatsuki’s on-board fault protection shut the engine down to prevent complete failure. Once this happened, the probe flew right past Venus without catching the orbit.

Artist rendition of the Akatsuki orbiting Venus

Artist rendition of the Akatsuki orbiting Venus

To make matters worse, Akatsuki was completely covered by Venus during its engine burn meaning communication was non-existent with Earth during the attempt. Because of this, JAXA was unable to see exactly what happened until reading the probe’s recorded telemetry dataafter it had a go at entering the orbit of Venus. Lucky for the team behind Akatsuki, it became apparent a rare second chance would avail itself in the future; unfortunately, this second chance was five years away.

Opportunistic and hopeful, JAXA patiently waited five years for its second crack at Venus and, triumphantly, the agency prevailed. By making use of a set of small thrusters aboard the Akatsuki, engineers were able to slightly alter the probe’s trajectory so it could be pulled in by the gravity of Venus. Though the new orbit of the craft is slightly off what JAXA originally intended, the crew couldn’t help but get excited at Akatsuki’s renewed mission.

“We had a perfect operation,” exclaimed Masato Nakamura, JAXA’s project manager. “We have to wait another two days to confirm the orbit. I am very optimistic. It is important to believe in success!”

Now that it can examine Venus as it originally intended, JAXA intends to study the planet’s atmosphere while Akatsuki orbits at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour. They say patience is a virtue, but in the case of JAXA and its revitalized Akatsuki spacecraft, patience was absolutely essential.

Why Japan’s mission to Venus has been so full of drama

 

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

Jason Torchinsky

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

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Decades and decades after they pretended never to be in a “moon race” with the U.S., Russia reportedly plans to land cosmonauts on the moon by the 2030s, according to the news agency TASS. The most recent plans call for up to six launches of the Angara A5V heavy-lift rocket to put enough hardware into orbit for their first mission, which appears to involve establishing a lunar base.

A lunar base, for real. Long the stuff of science fiction, it seems Russia is trying to do this for real, or at least wants to. The BBC reported in October that the Russian and European space agencies are preparing to go to the moon with an eventual settlement in mind.

The most obvious difference between the plans for Russia’s first manned lunar mission and the American one 46 years ago is in the number of launches. The U.S. did it with one massive Saturn V launch, so why are the Russians planning a mission that requires so many launches?

Part of the reason is that the Saturn V had about four times the lifting capacity of the Angara rockets, but that’s not the full story. Back when the Russians wore more red and called themselves the ‘Soviets.’ they also tried the single, massive launcher approach to a moon landing: the failed N1 rocket. It’s not that I don’t think the Russians couldn’t build a working, massive launch vehicle, I just think they realized for them it doesn’t make sense.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

The Angara rocket will eventually replace the Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, Proton. It makes more sense to develop a launch vehicle that has commercial and other uses as well, as opposed to building a massive super-heavy lift vehicle. The US only used the Saturn V for the seven moon landing launches (only six made it; if you’ve seen Apollo 13, you know the story), the lunar-and-earth orbiting manned and unmaned Apollo test missions, and then once again to launch Skylab, America’s first space station.

The Saturn V was a tremendous achievement, but it wasn’t exactly a useful multi-purpose launch vehicle, and I think the Russians want the Angara to get them to the moon and make some money launching satellites.

The other reason is that, according to sources talking to TASS, the first Russian mission to the moon will be more than a “flags and footprints” deal—they want to establish an actual lunar base, of some sort. With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of the six launches:

According to the source, a manned flight to the moon is possible under a scheme envisaging two coupled launches. First, a lunar take-off and landing complex is placed on a low Earth orbit, and then the upper stage with effective cryogenic propellants is orbited. The third launch orbits a manned spacecraft, and the fourth – another upper stage. After docking of the lunar take-off and landing complex with the manned spacecraft on the lunar orbit, the crew descends to the Moon surface inside the lunar take-off and landing complex, carries out the research program and returns to orbit. After that the spaceship returns to Earth.

Also, another coupled Angara-A5V launch will be needed before the manned flight to deliver and deploy the first expeditionary unit of the lunar base on the Moon.

So, what we’re basically looking at are three pairs of launches, with each pair including a payload and an ‘upper stage’ — essentially a rocket designed to get that payload to the moon. Let’s call each pair of launches ‘modules’ because that sounds like the sort of language space-folks like to use. That would break down the launches (in groups of two, remember) like this:

• Module 1: Lunar lander and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 2: Manned orbiter/command module/return vehicle and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 3: Lunar base unit and rocket to get it to the moon

… and, from what I can gather from the brief description, here’s an infographic of how it seems this mission will likely go down:

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A few things to note: manned orbiter/command/return spacecraft shown is not a Soyuz derivative, but rather Russia’s Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACTS), a two-module, truncated-cone capsule system that looks and awful lot like the US’s Orion. This is one of the many Soyuz-successors that’s been planned for a long time, sometimes with ESA involvement, sometimes not. I think it’s possible that this component could be replaced with a cheaper Soyuz-derived solution if this mission actually happens.

Also, there’s no information yet about just what the “lunar base” might turn out to be. It can’t be too large at this early stage, since it’s just one module that’s being launched the same way as everything else, meaning it’ll have to be similar in size and weight to the lander or ACTS.

My guess is we’ll see a single-cylinder module, something like a lander but replacing the launch engine with more robust life support systems. It’ll be a small base to start with, but I suspect it will be modular, and subsequent launches would add modules to it, just like how we build space stations, but sitting on the lunar surface.

Here’s what TASS speculates:

The continuation of the Luna program could be the beginning of Russian plans to establish a lunar base sometime in the 2030s. The proposed base would include a solar power station, telecommunication station, technological station, scientific station, long-range research rover, landing and launch area, and an orbiting satellite.

Even if it’s modest at first, a permanent lunar base is exactly what would be needed to make this mission relevant, so many decades after people first walked on the moon. New manufacturing methods, including 3D printing, have been developed that can make the use of lunar regolith as a building material possible, and the promise of eventual mining of Helium-3 as a fuel for hoped-for fusion reactors are finally giving lunar bases enough justification to exist.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

It’s an ambitious idea, and I think it’s at least technically possible. Russia has had many advanced programs proposed in the past decade or so (like, say, the Kliper spaceplane) that eventually came to nothing due more to economic issues than anything else, so I’m not convinced yet any of this actually will happen.

Still, I hope it does, and maybe the threat that the Russians will steal the lunar rover and sell it on eBay.ru will be enough to get our American asses back in gear and get a lunar base of our own.

I’m very curious to see how this all plays out.