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Venus orbiter arrives at Japanese launch site

Posted: March 22, 2010

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The next time Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft is packed up for another move, the probe will be strapped to the tip of an H-2A rocket taking aim on Venus.

Artist's concept of Akatsuki orbiting at Venus. Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita
About the size of a compact car, Akatsuki was shipped last week from its assembly plant in suburban Tokyo to the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

Akatsuki was transported via truck and ferry to the island launch site. The package left the factory in Sagamihara, Japan, on Wednesday and arrived at Tanegashima late Friday, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

During the next two months, technicians will finish adding parts to the spacecraft, load maneuvering propellant and test Akatsuki's systems to ensure their readiness for flight, a JAXA official told Spaceflight Now.

The probe will be transported to Tanegashima's Vehicle Assembly Building in early May to be bolted to the two-stage H-2A rocket that will launch the 1,058-pound spacecraft toward Venus.

The H-2A rocket is scheduled to blast off on its 17th flight at 2144:14 GMT (5:44:14 p.m. EDT) on May 17. Liftoff will be at 6:44 a.m. on May 18, Japanese time.

A Japanese solar sail demonstrator named Ikaros will be loaded aboard the H-2A rocket as a secondary payload. Ikaros will unfurl a square membrane with a 66-foot diagonal diameter to catch pressure from sunlight. The mission will attempt to show that pressure from particles of light called photons can be used as a low-thrust, but efficient, source of propulsion in deep space.

Ikaros will leave the factory March 29 and arrive at Tanegashima around April 2, officials told Spaceflight Now.

Akatsuki will reach Venus in early December if it launches during a planetary window in May and June, according to JAXA.

Akatsuki pictured at its factory on March 12. Credit: JAXA
Billed as the first interplanetary weather satellite, Akatsuki will carry six instruments to study the Venusian atmosphere from its outer boundary with space to the planet's hellish surface.

Akatsuki, also known as Planet C and the Venus Climate Orbiter, will enter an equatorial orbit around Venus stretching from just above the planet's blanketing atmosphere to an altitude of nearly 50,000 miles.

One of the mission's primary goals will be to determine the cause of violent atmospheric winds that drive storms and clouds around that planet at speeds of more than 250 mph. This property is called super-rotation.

Akatsuki's sensor package includes two infrared cameras to observe lower level clouds and collect data on potential active volcanoes. A longwave infrared instrument and ultraviolet imager will look at cloud tops and track global storm systems to produce wind maps.

A lightning and airglow camera will take pictures of the night side of Venus.

The sixth investigation is a radio science experiment to derive vertical temperature and vapor density profiles of the atmosphere. This data will be produced on the ground based on the atmosphere's effects on radio signals received from the spacecraft.