21 May 2010: Successful launch for Japan's Akatsuki and Ikaros

Friday, May 21, 2010

Awesome, it looks like the launch (50 minutes ago as I write this) went off without a hitch and now it's time to get excited about the two probes launched this morning, Akatsuki (heading to Venus) and Icarus, a solar sail.

Akatsuki costs $157 million (about a third or quarter what a similar probe from NASA would likely cost) and will be arriving at Venus December 7th this year, so a total of six months and two weeks from now. Venus has a probe orbiting it at the moment, the impressive but nearly completely silent to the media Venus Express from Europe, and having the two orbiting the planet will enable some pretty impressive observations that couldn't happen otherwise. Hopefully Akatsuki will be able to determine the origin of the superrotation in the high atmosphere of Venus, which is the part of the planet where humans could conceivably live (breathable air floats on Venus, and the temperature and atmospheric pressure there is similar to Earth at sea level).

More interesting in the short term will be Ikaros, as its mission is interesting from a technological standpoint due to being the first solar sail successfully launched, and after a few weeks will unfurl and begin showing results. It's similar to Deep Space 1 in being more interesting from a technological standpoint than any expected scientific return from its destination. It will be passing by Venus but its real goal is to just fly around and demonstrate how a solar sail works. For some reason solar sails up to now have been cursed with failure, from Cosmos 1 lost in 2005 to NanoSail-D lost in 2008 on a failed Falcon 1 flight, so Ikaros will be testing out a technology that we should have been able to test a number of times before now if it wasn't for such bad luck.

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