Have you ever had one of those days where you missed your freeway exit and had to take an alternative route? The process can be quite time consuming and often adds several minutes to the anticipated travel time. It is hard not to get frustrated. Of course, such emotions only complicate things and make the trip even less efficient. Recently, a team of Japanese aerospace engineers learned first hand that, in space exploration, one little missed exit can lead to many years of extra work. In 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency was excitedly watching as their Akatsuki probe was moving rapidly toward Venus. All was well until the main engine failed to come online and make the appropriate course correction. The result of this, missed exit on the cosmic freeway, was five years of unplanned wandering in the wilderness. Not only did it mean that Akatsuki would be late for her rendezvous with the “planet of love,” it also meant that, like Icarus, Akatsuki flew too near the sun and singed her wings.
What I like about this story is that the team did not give up on the mission. They knew that this “miss” meant the probability of success was small; but they did not lose focus and they kept seeking solutions to the problem. They still could not rely upon the main engine but knew that every five years Akatsuki would be close to Venus. This would be their window of opportunity. They would use the attitude control thrusters to position the craft for Venus gravity capture. On December 7 at 8:51 am (Japan Standard Time) the gamble paid off and Akatsuki is now in orbit around our “sister planet.” The scientific mission can resume. The probe has been scorched by the sun but remains functional and will soon begin to take continuous pictures of the atmosphere and surface of Venus.
This reclamation of the mission is a testament to tenacity and problem solving. Lesser engineers might have given up on the Akatsuki probe and begun work on a replacement vehicle. These individuals continued to work as a team and redeemed what might otherwise have been seen as a failure. There is something very impressive about this work. May they now enjoy the fruit of their labour as they gather data and explore further questions related to this closest neighbouring planet.
Other Works Cited:
“Japanese spacecraft reaches Venus — five years late”; Science News, December 8, 2015; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/japanese-spacecraft-reaches-venus-—-five-years-late.
“That Road Not Taken,” Joe Diffie, from the album, Third Rock From the Sun; Listen to it online here. Songwriters: Kelly Casey and Deborah Beasley, Published by The Bicycle Music Company. http://www.metrolyrics.com/that-road-not-taken-lyrics-joe-diffie.html