An H-2A rocket launches from Tanegashima space center in Japan (file photo).

Japan intends to launch the Venus Climate Orbiter, a solar sail demonstrator, and four smaller payloads May 18 aboard an H-2A rocket lifting off from the Tanegashima Space Center off the southern tip of Japan, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and rocket builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced March 3.

The Venus Climate Orbiter, dubbed Akatsuki, has a launch window that extends through June 3, according to JAXA and Mitsubishi.

The roughly 650-kilogram spacecraft is expected to reach Venus in December 2010 and spend at least two years studying the stormy planet with a suite of ultraviolet and infrared cameras to look for lightning and evidence of lightning and volcanic activity.

The Akatsuki mission is expected to overlap with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, which launched in late 2005 and is expected to continue orbiting Venus through at least 2012.