By John Herrman
Posting in Government
When JAXA's Akatsuki sailed past the planet it was supposed to orbit for the next two years, Japan may have lost more than just a probe.
The failure of Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft was a last-minute affair--one of the most devastating sorts. It had completed its slow, precisely calculated journey to meet Venus at its point of Solar orbit on December 6th. The planet would have loomed large to the probe. To the JAXA crew back in Japan, the end of the probe's trip, and the beginning of its two-year observation mission, was within grasp.
Then, something happened. Or rather, not enough happened. During a maneuver intended to bring the Akatsuki into Venusian orbit, communication with the probe was lost. Once it was recovered, it became clear that the rockets that were propelling the probe into orbit didn't fire as they were supposed to. The Akatsuki had missed its chance, and won't encounter Venus again for another six years--well past the craft's intended lifespan. Until then, the Akatsuki will lazily float an in orbit around the Sun, awaiting further instructions.
It's an apt metaphor for the JAXA, the Japanese space agency that merged Japan's distinct space programs into one just seven years ago. JAXA has consistently launched and operated small satellites and completed a handful of missions near Earth, but the Akatsuki, which was only the agency's second attempt at a planetary mission, was also its second failure. (The Nozomi probe was lost in a similar attempt to enter Martian orbit in 2003.) Assessing JAXA's 0% planetary mission success rate, agency official Takehiko Satoh told Space.com, "Our score is zero wins, two losses. We have to be more conservative to plan our next planetary mission, so it will never fail in any aspect."
As far as entry barriers go, the spaceflight industry is about as unforgiving as it gets. Planetary missions can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and in cases where they're essentially retreading previous missions, the cost can be hard to justify. Venus in particular has been extensively studied and observed, and was even the target of the first successful interplanetary mission, the Mariner 2, which arrived in orbit of the planet 48 years before the Akatsuki was due to enter orbit, almost to the day. JAXA is known as a frugal organization, but costs for a mission like Akatsuki's are still extremely high, especially when measured against the agency's modest $4bn budget.
It goes without saying that NASA's interplanetary mission success rate is higher than 0%, but failures are far from rare. Missions to Mars in particular have proven fraught, with over half of probes sent to the Red Planet experiencing some degree of technical failure. The difference is that a failed unmanned mission to Mars doesn't spark an existential crisis for NASA. An inquest, sure, and a bit of pushback from the press or Congress during budget negotiations, maybe. But it's not a crisis.
But for a smaller agency, a single failure represents the loss of a comparatively larger investment, and two failures could be enough to threaten an entire program.
This may seem like an obvious observation, but the problems of scale and entry barriers have had a huge effect of the execution of space travel in general, and cut to the heart of the biggest issues facing private space flight. Even if the barriers have fallen in the last 50 years, the expensive and failure-prone early period of a modern space program is still prohibitively expensive for many would-be comers. If JAXA's interplanetary efforts are threatened by two failures, just imagine the strain a series of mishaps could put on an even leaner, newer private entity like Virgin Galactic or SpaceX.
Dec 20, 2010
blackjack, try learning something about orbital mechanics and delta V. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta-v
blackjack861@... The probe was probably designed and built with only enough fuel for a single orbital insertion, and some left over for adjusting the orbit over the course of the mission. Insertion requires the probe be within a certain range of the planet, at a specific depth within the gravity well. Now that it's outside that well, it doesn't have enough fuel to make course corrections until 6 more years brings it close enough again. By the way, you don't do 180 degree turns in space. Most basic case, you'd need as much fuel as you used to launch the probe in the first place just to stop. Then you'd need fuel to get back to it, and fuel to slow down again once you reached your destination. But it's more complicated than that. The planet has moved since then, and it's still moving. If the probe went past the planet (probably did), then you need to burn fuel to slow down for the planet to catch up, which would cause the probe to fall deeper in the Sun's gravity well, taking it out of Venus's orbit. Then you'd need to burn fuel to accelerate to Venus's orbital speed. Like Han Solo said, "It ain't like dusting crops."
Wake up you naive fools. Japan probably had some "help" from China via a hacked command module or the like in both failures. China has plans for Japan that do not include space success.
Failure is never a definitive thing and we always can learn beyond it. Please don't let this little detail stop you guys. Just keep going, and try again, as many more times as it takes for check mark your goals. Just remember, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination and what we become is what we reach there, but what we learn while in the trip. I'm so sorry for the budget constraints, and we all know how hard is to make science researches in the economic climate this world is experiencing for the last ten years, but please, don't give up. Human kind needs your results and the expertise you are developing while doing what you are. Thank for being in business.
Until then, the Akatsuki will lazily float an in orbit around the Sun, awaiting further instructions. Why can't they reprogram the probe, to do a 180 degree turn. And try to intercept Venus, at another point. Instead of the 6 year wait?? I know since it missed its Dec.6th encounter, its probably thousands of miles past Venus now.
Very disappointing article. Only focuses on the negative, while completely missing the bigger picture. If we focus on failures, then this article is a good example of a total failure to communicate anything of value.
...and always has been. The major difference between exploring off-planet and on the ground is that on the ground we historically sent in human volunteers, and even though a well-trained volunteer is expensive (and we have usually not insisted on training,) their loss has been the loss of an individual. Remember too, that these are "fact-finding" missions, even repeated looks at the same places often yield surprises--look at the annual list of new species discovered. To date, the vast majority of space research has been very open- ended, because we had very little advance information regarding the missions. This is "pure" research, and as such, carries no guarantee of learning anything new. But such research, if continued, nearly always rewards us with information worth far more than the investment. And that investment, the mission costs, all stay within the economy--the only actual "loss" is the machine itself, which, while expensive to build, contains very little material in elemental terms. However much it "cost," most of that cost went to pay people and companies to perform work, and that money is still here! One of the best arguments for manned space exploration is flexibility--an important issue in exploring the unknown! This is the first major exploration of the unknown in which we were obsessed with not losing human lives--a factor which has undoubtedly slowed our progress considerably, though it has, of course, saved lives. At the same time, the number of humans we have killed in various wars during the period of our space exploration is in the 10's of millions... Perhaps we are putting too high a price upon human lives, and we ought to consider that lowering our safety standards, while it will cost lives (ANY large project will likely cost lives!) it could advance considerably the time when we will be able to utilize the off-planet resources (energy, metals, hydrocarbons etc..) And with our population/resource problems, we may not be able to afford such a delay, as it could well cost hundreds of millions of lives, rather than a few tens of explorers. Our people are brave, and willing to accept a much higher degree of risk for themselves than our pencil-pushing bureaucrats are willing to risk having a failure on their record. Too many "safety" redundancies increases your number of failure points, and thus at some point increases rather than decreasing the risk of failure. Consider the "safety" of the current generation of oil well blow-out preventer, with nearly 200 failure points, how can such a device be expected to perform well? Doing something brand-new generally has high risks, and we pay little or no attention to the cost/benefits of attempting to make such missions "safe." The Japanese have not "lost" their investment, they undoubtedly learned a lot by building and launching the craft, and may yet learn something interesting since the craft is still operational. And the 2 year operational life is to be taken as an estimate--we have had many craft which didn't fail and in fact outlived their mission life by many years. What is learned from this craft now depends upon the creative use of it's instrumentation so long as it still functions.
Robotic exploration of the planets is one of the most technologically difficult problems we have ever attempted. Probes have to negotiate the depths of space, enduring extremes of cold, heat, and ionizing radiation that can spell doom to even the best designed efforts. That being said, I hope JAXA picks up where they left off, and tries again, and again, if necessary. Does no one remember the trials and tribulations of the Vangard program, with its numerous launch failures? Had NASA stopped there, there woudn't have been any Apollo program either.
Sad but name any nation or individual who has not had a failure. Each and everyone of us and of each and every nation learn from failure whereas few if any learn from success. Basically nothing ventured results in nothing gained. Try again Japan and if unsuccessful try again and again until you succeed.
". . . just imagine the strain a series of mishaps could put on an even leaner, newer private entity like Virgin Galactic or SpaceX." You mean like the series of launch failures of Falcon One?