Researchers and engineers working with Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft were spared the worst-case scenario on 6 December. Although Akatsuki failed to make contact for more than an hour after the scheduled engine burn that was to place it in orbit around Venus, it did eventually call home. But the news was not promising. Not only had Akatsuki been tumbling out of control for a period of time, it had failed to enter orbit. It will now have to circle the Sun for six years before it gets a second chance.
The failure derails an ambitious program of research into Venus's atmosphere, and marks the third time that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has battled mechanical problems on a mission to another Solar System body. In 1998, a faulty valve caused a loss of fuel on JAXA's Nozomi spacecraft, which ultimately prevented it from orbiting Mars. And the Hayabusa probe, which returned a minute quantity of asteroidal material to Earth this year, experienced a variety of near-fatal problems.