A spacecraft designed to study Venus's atmosphere that missed its target 5 years ago has apparently succeeded in entering an orbit around the planet, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Mission controllers will confirm the trajectory in the coming days.
The probe, named Akatsuki, was designed by JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) to peel away some of the mystery of Venus's dense, cloudy atmosphere. But an engine malfunction during the craft's first rendezvous with Venus on 7 December 2010 sent it on a 5-year, 10-orbit trip around the sun. Engineers used the time to develop a scheme to insert the craft into orbit using four small attitude-control thrusters. JAXA reported that the thruster firing went as planned starting at 8:51 a.m. Japan time and that Akatsuki "is now in good health" and apparently circling Venus. Further tracking will be required to confirm its exact orbit.
Space watchers note that the apparently successful operation is a testament to the resourcefulness of ISAS scientists. "There is no previous example of the recovery of a mission after an orbital insertion failure," says Colin Wilson, a Venus specialist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.