When Japan’s Hayabusa space probe returned home from a seven-year odyssey this month, we got to see the amazing video as it broke up in a brilliant flash in the atmosphere and deposited its sample container (hopefully containing asteroid material) in Australia. Three high school students from Massachusetts, however, got a much better view. They experienced it first hand, and helped make that video for the world to see, thanks to a little white lie told by their teacher.
Ron Dantowitz of Brookline, Massachusetts, gave the three a challenge: If you had to track an object entering the atmosphere at 27,000 miles per hour, how would you know where to look, how would you keep the camera trained on the careening object, and what could you learn about the temperatures the object encountered? After they worked on the project for half a year, Dantowitz let loose his secret—this was no hypothetical scenario. He and the three students got to fly on the DC-8 over Australia and help NASA film Hayabusa’s return.
“We had flown several practices, but when we took off for the real thing, I felt a surge of adrenaline,” says [James] Breitmeyer. “I was on the edge of my seat, anxious for our plane to arrive at the right place at the right time.”
“We got to the rendezvous area 30 minutes ahead of time,” says Dantowitz. “So we practiced the rendezvous to make sure everyone knew which stars to line the cameras up with to capture Hayabusa’s re-entry. By the time we finished the trial run, we had only 2 or 3 minutes to go” [NASA Science News].
The students also captured spectral images like this one, showing how Hayabusa and its sample return container reacted with the atmosphere.
Concerning the mission itself, scientists at Japan’s space agency JAXA are slowly prying open the container to find out whether their plucky explorer captured any samples from its visit to an asteroid.
The presence of a low-pressure gas inside the capsule has already been detected, the agency is reporting. The nature of the gas, and whether it’s of extraterrestrial origin, has not yet been determined. The opening of the capsule is expected to take a week or more, though JAXA has not stated whether this is due to prudence on the part of the scientists or simply being unable to pry the darn package open [Popular Science].
We hope they find something inside. It would be the first time a probe has brought back samples from an asteroid it visited. And Hayabusa’s return after a long and troubled journey has inspired the Japanese government to pledge the funds for a sequel, the Washington Post reports.
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Bad Astronomy: Video of Hayabusa’s Return
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