There’s a small file on my desktop and in it is the list of all the games I intend to review. It’s also a file of missed opportunities, listing off the games I thought would be worth a look in but never got a chance to play. Many of the games have been in there for quite some time, long enough that I often forget what made me put them there in the first place. ADR1FT is one of those games and, whilst you can probably guess why I put it down, I certainly don’t remember it being billed as a walking simulator in space. Regardless ADR1FT is best described as the unofficial game of the movie Gravity, even if it was conceived long before the movie’s release.
You awake in your spacesuit with destruction all about you. Something’s happen, something bad and your spacesuit is quickly losing oxygen. Worse still your suit’s propulsion system is broken, forcing you to use the very oxygen that’s keeping you alive to move around. There’s only one path to safety and that’s to revive the crippled station to the point of being able to launch one of the escape pods. To do so however you will have to traverse the wreckage of your once mighty craft and find out just what caused this catastrophe.
ADR1FT has a beautiful, futuristic aesthetic to it. The undamaged parts of the space station are almost exactly as you’d expect them to be: clinically clean and densely packed together to make the most of the limited space. It’s interesting then to contrast them against the utter destruction that abounds outside with pieces of space debris flying around everywhere. This is most certainly done as an aide to the overall plot, giving you a glimpse into the past which has now been shattered. Of course the best visuals come when you take yourself far away from the station and take in the glorious vista below. That might just be the space nerd in me though.
ADR1FT is, well, I guess you’d call it a space-walking simulator since you don’t do any actual walking in it. Your job is to repair the space station’s various subsystems in order to activate the escape pod that can take you back down to earth. To do this you’ll have to repair at least 3 critical subsystems, all of which require the same routine of activating the mainframe, manufacturing a new core and installing said core into the mainframe terminal. The challenges you’ll face between each of those will be different, depending on what arm it was (organics, navigation, power, communication) but it will all come down to the same mechanic: trying not to bump into anything and not running out of oxygen.
Navigating the environment is more challenging than you’d think it would be, mostly because it seems like your spacesuit is made out of paper. Any slight bump is enough to send cracks across your screen and turn the UI into a wobbly mess, making the already taxing task just that much more different. To the developer’s credit though this does work as a good motivator to not hit anything and you’ll likely improve rapidly. The movement mechanics are mostly accurate when it comes to movement in space however there are some limitations which prevent you from speeding through everything. For long time walking simulator players this probably won’t come as much of a surprise as it’s par for the course in this genre.
That slow speed however does make it a rather tedious affair at times, especially when you get turned around or misjudge where you’re supposed to go next. Done correctly I’m sure the game could be completed in as little as 2 hours however it’s quite likely you’ll get lost enough that that time is doubled. This would be ok if exploration was rewarded aptly but in ADR1FT it unfortunately isn’t. Sure you might uncover an audio log here or another collectible there but it’s not enough to drive you to do it more. It’s a shame because the voice acting and writing are quite well done, there’s just not enough of it to make me seek it.
As I mentioned before the main plot of ADR1FT is driven through various pieces of dialogue drip fed to you through audio logs and walls of text hidden throughout the environment. There’s enough to get a sense of what could have led to what happened on the space station but some of the larger questions are left unanswered. It’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential avenues left unexplored, some of which could have given the story a lot more depth and interest. Indeed it feels like ADR1FT falls into the same trap that many similar games have done in the past: letting the game mechanics get in the way of telling the story. If more of the main story was fed through more accessible means I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune.
ADR1FT is a gorgeous space-walking simulator but little beyond that. The infinite expanse of space is expertly contrasted against the almost claustrophobic interior of the space station, giving you a sense of what came before and where you must go. The space walking is done well, with the expected kinds of limitations put in place for this genre. Unfortunately this slow movement hides much of the game’s dialogue which hampers its impact significantly. Overall I feel that ADR1FT is a well crafted game, and one worth playing just for the glorious views it provides, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver much more beyond that.
ADR1FT is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 45% of the achievements unlocked.
With the number of missions we’ve sent to Mars you might wonder why we keep going back there. For starters it’s very similar to Earth in many respects and is thus a great candidate for comparison, especially when it comes to the origins of life. Additionally it’s relatively easy to get into a good orbit for observation, Mars Curse not withstanding. Finally the atmosphere is far more hospitable for robotic exploration than say Venus or other planets or moons, allowing us to send craft to the surface that last years rather than minutes or hours. There’s also still a lot we can learn from our red sister and to that end the European Space Agency has launched ExoMars; a multi-part mission specifically targeted at identifying signs of life on Mars.
ExoMars is an incredibly ambitious mission that’s made up of 3 major parts. The first is the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a robotic probe that will map out Mars’ atmosphere with a specific view towards detecting both biological and geological activity. Flying along with the TGO is the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM Lander), a 600KG craft that will descend to the surface of Mars’ 4 days prior to TGO’s final orbital insertion maneuvers. Finally the last craft, yet to be launched, is a 310kg solar powered rover due to launch in 2018. All these craft combined make up the greater ExoMars mission and all have a key part to play in determining whether or not life was, or is, present on Mars.
The TGO’s payload consists of 4 main instruments, 2 of which are dedicated to atmospheric analysis (NOMAD and ACS), one for surface imaging (CaSSIS) and one to analysis the surface for hydrogen in the form of water or hydrated minerals (FREND). NOMAD and ACS will work together to do spectral analysis on Mars’ atmosphere in incredible detail, allowing us to detect even the smallest trace of biological activity. These devices will primarily operate in what’s called “Solar Occultation” mode which means that they look back at the sun through Mars’ atmosphere in order to do their analysis. They also have other modes however they present challenges in getting acceptable signal to noise ratios. CaSSIS is essentially a high resolution camera capable of images with a resolution of 4.5m per pixel (MRO’s HiRISE by comparison is about 2.5m per pixel). FREND is a neturon detector that can sense the presence of hydrogen in up 1m of Martian soil, giving us insight into the presence of water or hydrogenated minerals.
The EDM lander is a demonstration craft, one that will showcase and validate numerous pieces of technology required to successfully land the future planned rover. 4 days prior to TGO’s arrival at Mars the EDM Lander will separate and begin its descent to the surface of Mars. Initially it will slow itself using aerobreaking, reducing its speed from over 21,000km per hour to something more manageable. Then it will deploy drogue chutes to slow its descent speed even further, using doppler radar and other on board measuring devices to judge its trajectory. The final stages will then consist of a pulse-fired liquid rocket engines to slow itself further before shutting down completely 2 meters above the ground. The final impact will be absorbed by a specially designed crushable surface that will ensure the lander does not get damaged. All of these technologies are key in ensuring that the future rover can be delivered safely to the Martian surface.
The final piece of the puzzle is the ExoMars rover which will be substantially bigger than the MERs (Spirit and Opportunity) but about a third of the size of Curiosity. It will be solar powered using a 1200W array and capable of moving 70m per Martian day. On board will be numerous instruments with the major payloads focused primarily on the detection of life on Mars. The largest of these is the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser (MOMA) which will be able to conduct very high sensitivity analysis on samples collected from the surface of Mars. Its landing site is not yet determined however, that will be decided by the results gained from TGO’s time in orbit before the rover launches.
Suffice to say ExoMars will be one of the comprehensive search for life beyond our Earth ever conducted and it’s incredibly heartening to see the ESA undertaking this even after NASA pulled its support for it some time ago. For now it’ll be all quiet for at least 7 months as the TGO and EDM make their way to Mars. Towards the end of the year however we should start to get some exciting results and, if all goes well, a few happy snaps from the EDM as it descends to the surface.
The announcement from the researchers behind Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that they had directly observed gravitational waves. It’s an amazing achievement, one made all the pertinent by the fact that it was made 100 years after Einstein predicted it with his theory general relativity. It was the last remaining piece of the theory which had yet to be observed and with LIGO’s results it’s finally complete. However this is far from being the end of research into gravitational waves and there are some incredibly ambitious missions planned with one already on its way.
LISA Pathfinder, pictured above, was launched on December 3rd, 2015. Inside the craft are two small test masses which are sitting on opposite ends of the craft, 40cm apart. It arrived at its destination, a special place called the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1 (chosen due to the fact that the gravity of the sun and earth cancel each other out) on the 22nd of January 2016. After it has been commissioned it will set those two mass free, allowing them to experience near perfect free fall. It will then attempt to measure the distance between both of them using the same kind of laser interferometry that the LIGO detector used here on earth. It will also test various systems to account for other forces that are acting both on the craft and the test masses as well as providing insight into the longevity such systems will have in space. It’s essentially a smaller version of LIGO in space, one that will be critical for further planned missions.
As its name implies LISA Pathfinder is the trailblazer for another, much more ambitious craft that’s scheduled to be launched in 2034. LISA Pathfinder should be able to provide evidence that the systems work as intended although I wasn’t able to find any official source that said it will definitely provide direct observations of gravity waves itself. Indeed LIGO has been running since 2002 and was unable to detect anything until the recent upgrade was completed in September 2015. However the data provided by those observations helped in determining what level of detection was required and its likely that LISA Pathfinder will provide the same assurance for its successor craft, eLISA.
Comparatively LISA Pathfinder and eLISA are not even in the same ballpark. Where LISA Pathfinder has 2 small masses separated by 40cm eLISA will have 3 distinct craft, each carrying a 2KG weight and separated by 1 million kilometres. The principals behind them are the same however as they will precisely measure the distance between each other using laser interferometry. eLISA will be able to detect gravity waves at a much lower frequency than its ground based peers, allowing us to see a much wider range of events that generate them. For comparison LIGO can only detect frequencies about 10 orders of magnitude higher than what eLISA will be able to, a significant improvement in sensitivity.
Suffice to say it’s an incredibly exciting time for researchers in the world of general relativity. With the foundations of the theory backed up with observational data there’s now a whole world of new physics for them to explore. Soon there will be troves of data for them to pour through, much of which will be used to design the eLISA craft. Whilst it’s going to be some time before we see eLISA launching into space we at least know that when it does it will be able to provide us incredible insight into our universe.
Our cosmic backyard is still a mostly undiscovered place. Sure we know of all the major planets that share the same orbital plane as us but discoveries like the dwarf planets in the asteroid and kuiper belts are still recent events. Indeed the more we look at the things that are right next door to us the more it leads us to question just how some of these things came to be. It was the strange orbits of a few kuiper belt objects that led to the most recent discovery: the potential existence of a 9th planet orbiting our sun.
Why, I hear you ask, if we have a 9th planet have we not come across it before? Well, if confirmed, the reasons for us not seeing this planet before are simple: it’s just too damn far away. Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, is some 7.4 billion kilometers away from the sun at its closest approach whilst Planet 9 (as it is being called) is 5 times that distance at the same point in its orbit. Since planets don’t produce their own light we can only see them when they reflect light of their parent star and, that far out, our sun is a dim speck that barely illuminates anything. That, coupled with the fact that its orbit is perpendicular to ours, makes detection rather difficult and we’ve only found it now due to the effect it’s having on other kuiper belt objects.
The researchers who made the discovery, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown (previously credited with the discovery of a dwarf planet, Sedna), were first intrigued by a group of kuiper belt objects that all shared relatively similar orbital properties. Now due to the sheer number of objects that happen to be in the area it’s likely that this will occur by chance sometimes however they often result in unstable orbits. These objects seemed to be quite happy in their strange orbits however so there either had to be a large body, likely a planet, keeping them in line or some other force was at play. In order to verify this one way or the other a planetary model was developed and then simulated to see what other effects a planet might have.
Their simulations predicted that there should also be other kuiper belt objects with orbits that were perpendicular to Planet 9’s orbit. Looking at the data gathered on the numerous objects that exist within the kuiper belt the researchers found 5 objects that matched the simulation’s predictions, a good indicator that a planet is responsible for both them and the other peculiar orbits. This also helped to confirm some attributes of the planet like it’s potential mass (10 times that of earth) and its likely orbital period (10,000+ years). Interestingly enough this helps to fill in a gap in our solar system’s construction as current models predict the most common type of planet is one of Planet 9’s mass.
The researchers are now looking to directly image the planet in order to confirm that it exists. There’s potential for it to show up in data already collected however that will only work if it was currently close to the sun. If it was further out then time will be required on some of the larger ground based or potentially one of the space based telescopes in order to observe it. Either way direct confirmation is some way off but is surely forthcoming.
We humans were born in stars. Our elements were forged in the crucible of exploding stars, ones that had come to the end of their life and then erupted in a single cataclysmic event. This process has been going on for billions of years which is why we find our universe full of many of the elements that make up the periodic table and not just a melange of hydrogen. Like stars supernovae come in a variety of shapes and sizes and a recently observed one, dubbed ASASSN-15lh, sets the record for the brightest one ever observed. In fact it was so bright that we’re just barely able to explain how it might have happened.
ASASSN-15lh was first observed just over a year ago and initially showed up as a transient spot on observations conducted by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae. Further observations, conducted by the du Pont Telescope in Chile and the South African Large Telescope, confirmed that it was a noteworthy event that required further investigations. The final observation was then conducted by the Swift Space Telescope which then resulted in Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams designating it SN 2015L. The observations confirmed that this was the most luminous supernova ever to occur, something which pushes the boundaries of our understanding about how big events like this can get.
Now most blips don’t warrant the level of scrutiny that ASASSN-15lh received however the spectrum of the supernova, provided by the du Pont Telescope, was incredibly unusual. The spectrum would match that of a previously seen superluminous supernova but only if the light had been significantly red-shifted (I.E. that it happened so far from Earth that the wavelengths of light had been stretched by the expansion of space to look more red). This is where the observation from the African Large Telescope comes into play as it confirmed that the light had undergone significant redshifting. This then meant that they were looking at an incredibly bright supernova, 3 times brighter than the previous record holder.
How supernova can get this bright is an incredibly interesting process. Essentially it relies on the star shedding its outer layers first and then forming whats called a Magnetar core. These neutron star variants are shrouded in a magnetic field so powerful that it’s lethal to life at distances even up to 1000km away from it. This magnetar would then have to spin incredibly fast, completing a full revolution every millisecond (the theoretical maximum for these kinds of stars). Then, as the star began to slow, giant magnetic winds would billow forth, slamming into the outer hydrogen layers and producing a shockwave of incredible luminance.
To put it in perspective just how bright ASASSN-15lh is if it were to have happened anywhere in our galaxy it would be visible by the naked eye during the day. If it happened in our cosmic backyard it would be as luminous as the moon. At its peak ASASSN-15lh shone 20 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined.
This explanation however relies on everything happening at a perfect maximum in order to produce something as bright as this. Whilst it’s quite possible that the magnetar explanation is sufficient it’s right on the edge of our understanding and so it’s very possible that there’s other mechanics at work here that influenced the final outcome. It’s taken a year of obsverations and research to get to this point so it’s likely that the data gathered on ASASSN-15lh has numerous more insights to give us on how such incredible events occur.
For me the incredible scale of things like this fill me with a sense of wonder and amazement. To think a single entity could dwarf an entire galaxy like that, even if for only a brief moment, gives you an incredible amount of perspective on all things. Indeed the fact that the atoms and molecules that constitute me were born in such places gives me a sense of connectedness to the universe and all the wonders that dwell within it.
If there’s one thing that SpaceX has shown us is that landing a rocket from space onto a barge in the middle of the ocean is, well, hard. Whilst they’ve successfully landed one of their Falcon-9 first stages on land not all of their launches will match that profile, hence the requirement for their drone barge. However that barge presents its own set of challenges although the last 2 failed attempts were due to a lack of hydraulic fluid and slower than expected throttle response. Their recent launch, which was delivering the Jason 3 earth observation satellite into orbit, managed to land successfully again however failed to stay upright at the last minute.
Elon stated that the failure was due to one of the lockout collets (basically a clamp) not locking properly on one of the legs. Looking at the video above you can see which one of those legs is the culprit as you can see it sliding forward and ultimately collapsing underneath. The current thinking is that the failure was due to icing caused by heavy fog at liftoff although a detailed analysis has not yet been conducted. Thankfully this time around the pieces they have to look at are a little bigger than last times rather catastrophic explosion.
Whilst it might seem like landing on a drone ship is always doomed to failure we have to remember that this is what the early stages of NASA and other space programmes looked like. Keeping a rocket like that upright under its own strength, on a moving barge no less, is a difficult endeavour and the fact that they’ve managed to successfully land twice (but fail to remain upright) shows that they’re most of the way there. I’m definitely looking forward to their next attempt as there’s a very high likelihood of that one finally succeeding.
The payload it launched is part of the Ocean Surface Topography from Space mission which aims to map the height of the earth’s oceans over time. It joins one of its predecessors (Jason-2) and combined they will be able to map approximately 95% of the ice-free oceans in the world every 10 days. This allows researchers to study climate effects, providing forecasting for cyclones and even tracking animals. Jason-3 will enable much more high resolution data to be captured and paves the way for a future, single mission that will be planned to replace both of the current Jason series satellites.
SpaceX is rapidly decreasing the access costs to space and once they perfect the first stage landing on both sea and land they’ll be able to push it down even further. Hopefully they’ll extend this technology to their larger family of boosters, once of which is scheduled to be test flown later this year. That particular rocket will reduce launch costs by a factor of 4, getting us dangerously close to the $1,000/KG limit that, when achieved, will be the start of a new era of space access for all.
Announced back in 2007 Google’s Lunar X-Prize was an incredibly ambitious idea. Originally the aim was to spur the then nascent private space industry to look beyond low earth orbit, hoping to see a new lunar rover land on the moon by 2012. As with all things space though these things take time and as the deadline approached not one of the registered teams had made enough meaningful progress towards even launching a craft. That deadline now extends to the end of this year and many of the teams are much closer to actually launching something. One of them has been backed by Audi and have their sights set on more than just the basic requirements.
The team, called Part Time Scientists (PTS), has designed a rover that’s being called the Audi Lunar Quattro. Whilst details are scant as to what the specifications are the rover recently made a debut at the Detroit Auto Show where a working prototype was showcased. In terms of capabilities it looks to be focused primarily on the X-Prize objectives, sporting just a single instrument pod which contains the requisite cameras. One notable feature it has is the ability to tilt its solar panels in either direction, allowing it to charge more efficiency during the lunar day. As to what else in under the hood we don’t yet know but there are a few things we can infer from what their goals are for the Audi Lunar Quattro’s mission.
The Google Lunar X-Prize’s main objective is for a private company (with no more than 10% government funding) to land a rover on the moon, drive it 500m and stream the whole thing in real time back to earth in high definition. It’s likely that the large camera on the front is used for the video stream whilst the two smaller ones either side are likely stereoscopic imagers to help with driving it on the lunar surface. PTS have also stated that they want to travel to the resting site of the Lunar Roving Vehicle left behind by Apollo 17. This likely means that much of the main body of the rover is dedicated to batteries as they’ll need to move some 2.3KM in order to cover off that objective.
There’s a couple other objectives they potentially could be shooting for although the relative simplicity of the rover rules out a few of them. PTS have already said they want to go for the Apollo Heritage Prize so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went for the Heritage Prize as well. There’s the possibility they could be going for the range prize as if their rover is capable of covering half the distance then I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t do it again. The rover likely can’t get the Survival Prize as surviving a Lunar night is a tough challenge with a solar powered craft. I’d also doubt its ability to detect water as that single instrument stalk doesn’t look like it could house the appropriate instrumentation to accomplish it.
One thing that PTS haven’t yet completed though, and this will be crucial to them succeeding, is locking in a launch contract. They’ve stated that they want to launch a pair of rovers in the 3rd quarter of 2017 however without a launch deal signed now I’m skeptical about whether or not this can take place. Only 2 teams competing for the Lunar X-Prize have locked in launch contracts to date and with the deadline fast approaching it’s going to get harder to find a rocket that has the required capabilities.
Still it’s exciting to see the Lunar X-Prize begin to bear fruit. The initial 5 year timeline was certainly aggressive but it appears to have helped spur on numerous companies towards achieving the lofty goal. Whilst it might take another 5 years past that original deadline to fulfill it the lessons learned and technology developed along the way will prove invaluable both on the moon and back here on earth. Whilst we’re not likely to see a landing inside of this year I’m sure we’ll something the year afterwards. That’s practically tomorrow, when you’re talking in space time.
2 years ago the Kepler probe was dealt a critical blow. Out of 4 reaction wheels, the devices which keep the telescope pointed in the right direction, only 2 remained functioning. This meant that the telescope was no longer able to maintain the level of precision required to continue its planet hunting mission. However there was a bold plan to continue Kepler’s mission, albeit in rather different capacity. Kepler could use the solar pressure exerted by our sun as a third reaction wheel, allowing it to continue imaging the sky and looking for planets. It wouldn’t be able to look at the same piece of sky for the entire time however and would be limited to viewing periods of approximately 80 days each.
Whilst this was a significant downgrade in Kepler’s abilities it was a far better option than just retiring the spacecraft completely. In its previous incarnation Kepler was able to track hundreds of thousands of stars continuously, allowing us to detect numerous planets orbiting their parent stars. In its current incarnation Kepler will only be able to detect planets with shorter orbits which are unlikely to be the Earth-like ones we’re all hoping for. Still even in that reduced capacity Kepler has been able to identify no less than 100 new exoplanets with over 200 additional candidates awaiting confirmation by other methods. For a telescope that may have been written off that’s an amazing accomplishment, but it doesn’t just stop there.
As the above diagram shows Kepler has to reorient itself every so often so that light from the sun doesn’t enter the telescope (this would damage its sensors). Not all of these orientations are good for looking for exoplanets however and so Kepler has been put to other uses. Several of the viewing periods have been dedicated to looking at planets within our own solar system, giving us insights into their behaviour like we didn’t have before. It recently spent 70 days observing the weather on Neptune and the motion of its moons, the longest observation of the planet to date. Additionally another observation period is being dedicated to doing a similar investigation on Uranus.
Like I’ve said before second chances with space missions are rare and it’s incredibly heartening to see Kepler producing these kinds of results 2 years after its reaction wheels failed. Whilst these might not be the exact results we’re after they’re still invaluable pieces of data that will help broaden our understanding of both our universe and galactic backyard. I’m sure that we’ll continue to see great things from Kepler and, hopefully, many more exoplanets.
An efficient, cost effective reusable launch system has been the holy grail for all those seeking access to space. There have been numerous attempts, the most notable of which being the venerable Space Shuttle, however even that failed to achieve its goals of drastically reducing the cost of putting things into orbit. SpaceX has made significant headway into making orbital access cheaper however their lofty goals of a reusable system have eluded them thus far. However, just yesterday, they managed to hit a critical milestone: the first stage of their V1.1 Falcon-9 making a successful vertical landing at their site at Cape Canaveral.
The mission was set to launch the day previous however it was delayed in order to increase the chance of a successful recovery landing by another 10% (which also gave us a spectacular night launch, depicted above). The payload aboard the Falcon-9 was 11 ORBCOMM satellites which are low earth orbit communications satellites designed for Machine to Machine communications (essentially tracking and sensor data primarily). After a successful launch into orbit the first stage begun preparations to bring itself back down to earth. Then, only 10 minutes after the initial launch, it landed successfully back on earth to much fanfare from the ground control crew at SpaceX.
Unlike previous first stage recovery attempts this one used an area of flat land rather than the sea based drone ship. This is something of a simpler challenge, since you’re not trying to track a moving target, however those initial tests provided significant risk mitigation should something have gone wrong. Whilst this is the first successful demonstration of the technology at an orbital scale it’s definitely not the first time SpaceX have managed to successfully land a rocket vertically (despite what Jeff Bezo’s tweet about it would lead you to believe). That achievement is held by SpaceX’s Grasshopper demonstration rocket which has been in operation for some years now.
This achievement allows SpaceX to continue development on their reusable launch system program. Whilst the rocket has made it successfully back to Earth it’s certainly worse for wear, showing significant discolouration along its entire fuselage. The challenge SpaceX faces now is how to refurbish the rocket in order to make it flight worthy again, something which has proved to be quite costly for other reusable systems. However SpaceX has said it is confident that the recovery process will make their Falcon-9 rocket either cheaper or more performant (or both, they hope). Whilst they’ve long since abandoned any plans to make the Falcon-9 fully reusable (the second stage is considered unrecoverable, for now) it will be very interesting to see how the first stage recovery affects the service SpaceX can provide.
This is an incredible achievement for SpaceX, demonstrating that they’re quite capable of pushing the envelope in launch system technology. It’s these kinds of improvements that help drive down the cost of access to space and will hopefully pave the way for NASA and other space faring nations to focus on what they do best.
Second chances in space missions are exceedingly rare. When something goes wrong it often means either a total loss of the mission or a significantly reduced outlook for what the mission can accomplish. Primarily this comes down to the tight engineering challenges that space missions face, with multiple redundant systems only able to cope with so much. Still every so often they happen and sometimes a new mission is born out one that might have been a failure. Such is the story of JAXA’s Akatsuki craft, one that has been lying in wait for the last 5 years waiting for its chance to fulfill its mission.
Akatsuki launched 5 years ago aboard JAXA’s H-IIA rocket. It was to be JAXA’s second interplanetary probe after their first, Nozomi, failed to reached its intended destination over a decade prior. The insertion burn was confirmed to have started on schedule, however after the communications blackout period where the probe was behind Venus it failed to reestablish communications at the expected time. It was found drifting away from Venus in safe mode, indicating that it had undergone some form of failure. In this state it was operating in a very low bandwidth mode and so it took some time to diagnose what had happened. As it turned out the main engine had fired for only 3 minutes before failing, not enough to put it in the required orbit.
However it was enough to put Akatsuki on a leading orbit with Venus, one that would eventually bring it back around to meet the planet some time in the future. It was then decided that JAXA would attempt recovery of the craft into a new orbit around Venus, a highly elliptical orbit with a period of almost 2 weeks (the originally intended orbital period was approximately 30 hours). Investigation into the craft’s damaged sustained during the first initial burn showed that the main engine was unusable and so the insertion burn would be performed by its attitude thrusters. JAXA had a lot of time to plan this as the next scheduled rendezvous would not happen for another 5 years.
Following some initial maneuvers back in July and September Akatsuki began its orbital insertion burn on the 7th of December. The small attitude thrusters, designed to keep the spacecraft oriented, fired for 20 straight minutes far beyond what they were originally designed for. They did their job however and 2 days later JAXA announced that they had successfully entered orbit around Venus, albeit in the far more elliptical orbit than they originally planned.
The extended duration in space has likely taken its toll on Akatsuki and so JAXA is currently undertaking a detailed investigation of its current status. 3 of its 6 cameras have shown to be fully functioning with the remainder scheduled to be brought online very soon. Scientific experiments using Akatsuki’s instruments won’t begin until sometime next year however as an orbital correction maneuver is planned to reduce Akatsuki’s orbit slightly. However JAXA is confident that the majority of their science objectives can be met, an amazing boon to both their team and the wider scientific community.
It’s incredibly heartening to see JAXA successfully recover the Akatsuki craft after such a monumental setback. The research conducted using data from the Akatsuki craft will give us insights into why Venus is such a strange beast, rotating slowly in opposite direction to every other planet in our solar system. Whilst I’d never wish failure upon anyone I know the lessons learnt from this experience will bolster JAXA’s future missions and, hopefully, their next one won’t suffer a similar fate.