May 21, 2010

Successful Launch For Solar Sail And Venus Probe

Japan successfully launched its Venus probe and a kite-shaped "space yacht" early Friday for a two-year mission to study the planet Venus and its climate.

The launch vehicle, the H-IIA rocket, took off from the Tanegashima space center in southern Japan on schedule at 6:58 am Friday morning, three days after its original launch was postponed due to inclement weather.

Teruaki Kawai, space business manager for the rocket maker, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, told a press conference that the lift-off was nearly perfect.

The victorious launch was JAXA's 11th straight launch success for the H-IIA rocket, Japan's primary space vehicle. The last unsuccessful launch was in 2003 when a rocket was forced to self-destruct after a booster had failed to disengage from the main body.

The new rocket launch carried the Venus climate orbiter "Akatsuki" and the experimental solar-sailor "Ikaros" which will both be heading to Venus. Ikaros -- an acronym for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun -- is designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight particles.

Similar to an ocean yacht pushed by wind, Ikaros has a square, ultra-thin and flexible sail, measuring 46 by 46 feet, that will be driven through space by the power of the Sun. The sail is also partially coated with solar cells that will generate electricity.

Ikaros will be the first use of the propellant-free technology in deep space, although it has been tested in orbit around Earth before.

"This idea of a solar sail was born some 100 years ago, as we often find it in science fiction novels, but it has not been realized to date," JAXA said on its website. "If we can verify this navigation technology through the Ikaros, it will mark the first spectacular achievement of its kind in the world," it said.

Akatsuki is expected to reach the orbit of Venus by December. It will circle the planet for two years examining its climate, including clouds, temperature and wind power, JAXA said.

"I'm full of joy after the probe was put into the right orbit," Masato Nakamura, the JAXA chief scientist in charge of Akatsuki development, said at the press conference. "My heart is beating, thinking of what's ahead."

Venus is similar in size to Earth but has a far more hostile climate, with temperatures approaching 860 degrees Fahrenheit and large of amounts of carbon dioxide.

Scientists believe a probe of the climate of Venus will give them a better understanding of the formation of the Earth's environment and its future.

The Akatsuki probe will work closely with the European Space Agency's Venus Express.

Akatsuki's mission will be to peer through the planet's thick layer of sulfuric acid clouds to monitor the meteorology of Venus, search for signs of lightning, and scan the surface for active volcanoes.

It will observe the planet from a distance of between 200 and 50,000 miles.

"Akatsuki is the first 'meteorological satellite' of a planet other than the Earth," said Seiichi Sakamoto, director for space science outreach at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. "Detailed study of Earth's sister planet will provide us with breakthroughs in the field of atmospheric science," he added.

The Japanese rocket also released four other small satellites, developed by Japanese universities and other institutions.

The development cost of Akatsuki was around 25 billion yen ($280 million). The Ikaros project cost about $16 million US.

Ikaros will take the same starting trajectory as Akatsuki, but is only scheduled to pass the orbit of Venus during its three-year journey to the far side of the Sun.


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