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TOKYO -- A Japanese probe to Venus failed to reach orbit Wednesday and was captured by the sun's gravitational pull in a setback to Japan's shoestring space program, which will have to wait another six years to try again. The failure in the crucial orbital insertion stage of the probe was a big letdown for Japan, which has never suceeded in an interplanetary mission but has marked some major successes in space on a relatively tight budget that is focused primarily on small-scale science projects.
The probe, called Akatsuki, which means dawn, reached Venus on Tuesday and fired its engines in an attempt to reach an elliptical orbit. Mission officials said they briefly lost contact after that and determined Wednesday that Akatsuki's engines did not fire long enough to attain the proper orbiting position. The probe would have been the first that Japan had put in orbit around another planet. Japan launched a failed mission to Mars in 1998 that was plagued by technical glitches and finally abandoned in 2003.
Still, officials said communication had been restored and Akatsuki appears to be intact and functioning as it heads off into an orbit around the sun.
Akatsuki was designed to monitor volcanic activity on Venus and provide data on its thick cloud cover and climate, including whether the planet has lightning. The probe is equipped with infrared cameras and other instruments to carry out its mission.