Seven years after launch, Japan’s Hayabusa researchers can finally celebrate their success: The little asteroid probe has, really and truly, succeeded at its mission. Researchers announced that the probe’s payload capsule, retrieved in June, contains dust from the asteroid Itokawa that the probe visited in 2005.
Not only did it travel four billion miles with only one rest stop (becoming the first spacecraft to land on and lift away from an asteroid!), it also collected a sample of the asteroid dust and shuttled it back to earth three years after its scheduled landing date. It accomplished all this despite an instrument malfunction during the crucial sample collection maneuver, and serious engine trouble throughout the mission.
After analyzing more than 1,500 particles using scanning electron microscopes, researchers have announced that almost all of the specks of rock and dust (pictured here in the capsule) are of extraterrestrial origin. That’s a relief to scientists who feared that the dust might be earthly contaminants.
Yes, the Hayabusa mission’s sample container captured some tiny dust particles. No, we still don’t know whether those particles are the first bits of an asteroid ever returned to Earth by a spacecraft.
Scientists from Japan’s space agency, JAXA, have slowly and cautiously been prying open Hayabusa’s container. They have released photos that show particles trapped in there, none of which are larger than a millimeter, but at least 10 of which are visible to the naked eye. However, it may take months to know whether those came from the Itokawa asteroid that Hayabusa visited, or somewhere else.
Hayabusa project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi said scientists believed materials from Earth were among the particles found in the pod. “But it’s important that it wasn’t empty… I’m glad that there is the possibility” that some are from the asteroid, Kawaguchi told a press briefing [AFP].
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].
You try coming home on time after traveling four billion miles.
Three years after its initially scheduled return date, Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft returned to Earth yesterday and dropped its collection canister in the Australian outback. The team from JAXA, Japan’s space agency, hopes that the container holds samples from Hayabusa’ 2005 landing on an asteroid called Itokawa. They won’t know for sure for a couple weeks, but Hayabusa has already made history by landing on an asteroid and returning to Earth.
(Check out DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait’s post featuring video footage of Hayabusa’s return in which the probe breaks up into a spectacular flash.)
The headline on JAXA’s website currently reads, “Welcome back HAYABUSA to Earth after overcoming various difficulties!” That’s putting it mildly:
Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007 but a series of technical glitches — including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of electricity-storing batteries — forced it to miss its window to maneuver into the Earth’s orbit until this year [AP].
Battered, drained of fuel, and travel-weary, Japan’s asteroid-sampler is almost home. The Hayabusa, which the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched in 2003, is scheduled to drop its sample canister in the Australian outback in June. But, the project leaders warn, there’s still a chance than the beleaguered sojourner won’t make it. And even if it does successfully return to Earth, it’s possible that the sample capsule may not contain extraterrestrial rock.
Hayabusa spent three months exploring the Itokawa asteroid in late 2005, even making an unplanned landing on the asteroid’s surface. The probe spent up to a half-hour on Itokawa, making it the first spacecraft to lift off from an asteroid [Space.com]. The craft also took 1,600 pictures and more than 100,000 infrared images.