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First Look

Phoenix rising: Japan's spacecraft beams back photos of Venus

The first photos received from the spacecraft are ultraviolet images taken at the very beginning of Akatsuki's orbit. 

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    Japan's Venus Climate Orbiter 'AKATSUKI' captured this image of Venus immediately after its attitude control ejection at 2:19 p.m. on Monday.
    Courtesy of JAXA
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All it took was five and a half years, a trip past the Sun, and a stellar backup plan, and Japan can now proudly show off photos of Venus.

As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported on the saga:

Akatsuki, a probe launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to orbit Venus and explore its hostile atmosphere, was ready in December 2010 to begin orbiting the second planet when disaster struck. A spike in temperature to its main engine, believed to be caused by a choked fuel valve, caused the probe to spin and veer off course, and the space agency missed, by a matter of minutes, the opportunity to put its spacecraft in Venus orbit.

For a time, JAXA scientists had a functioning spacecraft with five cameras aboard careening uselessly through space. Until now. Five years later, the probe has come Venus’s way again, and this time, the space agency is ready...

Today, JAXA confirmed Akatsuki is in orbit, and is already sending back photographs. 

While it was immediately apparent to the space agency that the jets it used to propel the craft fired as scheduled, it took until Wednesday morning to be sure that the change in the spacecraft's velocity was enough to lock it into orbit. Following close measurements, particularly orbital velocity, JAXA confirmed that while the spacecraft is in a higher orbit around Venus than the original plan five years ago, Akatsuki is circling Venus.

Discovery dubbed it "the comeback kid" for its achievement.

The first photos received from the spacecraft are ultraviolet images snagged at the very beginning of orbital insertion earlier this week. The images show Venus’s clouds interspersed with sulfur dioxide (SO2  ) wafting up through its ever-changing atmosphere. According to Gizmodo, it appears that at least three of the five instruments aboard are functioning in "perfect" condition, even though Akatsuki was designed for just six months of traveling and two years of observing, and has now been in space for five and a half years. 

The spacecraft is currently in a highly-elliptical 13-day, 14-hour orbit around the planet, coming within 248 miles of scorching-hot Venus at its closest, and reaching 243,400 miles away at its farthest, Discovery reports.

Akatsuki remains "in good health," according to JAXA, and its multiple data and photo-capturing apparatuses are set to be tested for fitness soon, as well. Scientific operations of the mission are expected to start in April 2016.

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