Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft almost didn't make it into orbit around Venus, but it's clear that the effort to put it back on track is paying off. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency recently obtained the first detailed scientific results from its once-wayward probe, and it's clear that we still have a lot to learn about our closest planetary cousin. For one thing, its clouds don't entirely behave the way researches expect. Infrared images of its dense, multi-layer cloud layers suggest that cloud formation is more complex than once thought, and the unusual bow-shaped cloud formation (shown at right) appears to rotate in sync with the surface, not the atmosphere. It's possible that features on the ground are having a strong effect on the sky.
The probe has its share of challenges. Its orbit is far more elongated than JAXA originally planned, so it'll only have a very brief window to snap high-detail pictures. Also, the years-long delay in getting to Venus nearly cost the team valuable data -- accumulated water vapor rendered one camera inoperable for about a month. Still, the team is optimistic about the future. Akatsuki is just now beginning regular operations, and the highly eccentric orbit will provide an opportunity to track Venus' major features over long periods.