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Japan's Venus probe fails to enter orbit: JAXA

TOKYO (AP): A Japanese space probe sent to the thick clouds of Venus shut itself down, and its future looks as hazy as the planet it was built to study.

The probe, called Akatsuki, which means 'dawn', reached Venus on Tuesday to orbit Earth's neighbor on a two-year mission. But communication problems left scientists in the dark about whether it was successfully in orbit.

An American scientist on the probe's research team said the probe shut itself partially down and is in safe mode. That means it is sending back signals indicating it is alive, but not transmitting any data.

At first, controllers back on Earth lost contact with the probe and got modulating signals indicating that spaceship may be wobbling a bit, said Sanjay Limaye, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who is one of five American scientists on the Akatsuki research team.

But after a few hours, engineers at NASA and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, were able to lock on the probe's signal and found it shut itself down to protect itself, Limaye said.

"That means at least things are looking better if not perfectly the best," he said.

It would be the first time Japan has ever placed a spacecraft into orbit around another planet and comes after the country recently brought a probe back from a trip to an asteroid. Russia, the United States and the Europeans have successfully explored other planets.

The Russian space programme has been sending missions to Venus since 1961 with more than 30 attempts. Its early missions were marred with many failures.

Limaye said it was unclear if the probe was successfully inserted into orbit around Venus, but Gerald Schubert, a University of California, Los Angeles, scientist who is on the probe team, said he thinks it is in some kind of orbit around the hazy planet.
"There appears to be a problem, but exactly what the problem is I'm not sure," Schubert said.

Japan has long been one of the world's leading space-faring nations. It was the first Asian country to put a satellite in orbit around the Earth in 1970 and has developed a highly reliable booster rocket in its H-2 series.

In recent years, Japan has been overshadowed by the big strides of China, which has put astronauts in space twice since 2003 and was the third country to send a human into orbit after Russia and the United States.


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