Did you know that there is a spacecraft mission on the way to Venus? Such missions were common in the days of the Soviet-American (US/SU) space race, from 1961 to 1984. But the world is different now. Not only has the US/SU space race ended, but other players are now in the game. On May 20 of this year the Japanese space agency JAXA launched the Akatsuki spacecraft (known before its successful launch as Planet-C) on a planned two-year mission to orbit around Venus. The purpose of the mission is to study the clouds, climate, and atmospheric circulation of “Earth’s twin”. With a surface baking at about 750 K (900oF) and clouds of sulfuric acid droplets, a better name for Venus might be “Earth’s evil twin”.
Akatsuki (“dawn” in Japanese) is scheduled to arrive at Venus and enter orbit on December 7, 2010. Along the way to Venus it dropped off a secondary payload named Ikaros, an experimental solar sail which is propelled by the momentum carried by sunlight (not the solar wind!). By late Tuesday we should know whether it entered Venus orbit successfully. Since this is the first Venus mission since NASA’s Magellan radar mapper in 1989, we can hope that the media will pay some attention!