A piece of asteroid falls to Earth in June, but in a good way

By Phil Plait | May 6, 2010 7:00 am

Hayabusa-earth-returnThe Japanese mission Hayabusa ("Falcon") has been nothing if not ambitious. Launched in 2004, it reached the bizarre asteroid Itokawa a little over a year later. It took phenomenal images and other measurements, and even landed on the asteroid itself to take samples, destined to be returned to Earth.

But it has suffered a series of crippling mishaps that have threatened the mission time and again with failure. However, despite all that, the end game is in sight: Hayabusa is almost back home, and on June 13, sometime around 14:00 UT, the sample recovery capsule will parachute down to the Earth.

hayabusa_itokawaThis is an unprecedented opportunity for scientists! While meteorites that fall to Earth give us samples of asteroids, this will be the first time we’ll have obtained one that has not been through the perils of atmospheric re-entry directly. Also, Itokawa is just plain weird. As you can see in the picture, it’s covered in rubble, and lacks impact craters! This is strong evidence that it’s not a single, monolithic body; in other words, it’s not a solid rock. It may instead be more like a pile of rubble, an asteroid that has been shattered repeatedly by low-speed impacts with other rocks, but had its own gravity hold it together like a bag full of shattered glass.

Asteroids like this may comprise a significant percentage of all the asteroids we see. And if one of them is headed toward Earth, how we deal with a rubble pile may be very different than how we might try to push a solid rock out of the way. Studying Itokawa is therefore very important… and may just save the world.

The sample return capsule will land in Woomera, Australia, where it hopefully will not be attacked by venomous Koalas (everything Down Under can kill you). I just learned that my old friend and editor J. Kelly Beatty will be there to watch it come back! He’s doing it as part of the high school at which he teaches; go read his remarkable story to learn more.

And expect to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks, too. It will take a long time to study and understand the actual samples returned, but in the meantime the re-entry itself is very exciting, and hopefully we’ll get cool video of it too.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Mike Murray.

Drawing credit: Corby Waste and Tommy Thompson for NASA / JPL. Image of Itokawa credit: JAXA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!, Space

Comments (22)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great mission & hope it’s recovered something successfully – BTW. I know somebody local involved in transporting the Japanese scientist up there ! :-)

    “… on June 13, …

    Is that US time or local? We’re about a day ahead of you guys time-zone~wise. ;-)

    ” … venomous Koalas (everything Down Under can kill you)…

    Not too many koalas up in Woomera – its in the northern desert area of my state & so you’re probably pretty much out of drop bear territory. ;-)

    Nor is it true that *everything* in Oz will kill you – the redback spiders that love to hide under outback dunny (toilet) seats will just make you feel very sick. ;-)

    Finally :

    Launched in 2004, it reached the bizarre asteroid Itokawa a little over a year later. It took phenomenal images and other measurements, and even landed on the asteroid itself to take samples, destined to be returned to Earth. … Asteroids like this may comprise a significant percentage of all the asteroids we see.

    Which would make it not so much bizarre as simply different from most of the asteroids we’ve seen so far right?

    What sort of percentage are we talking here & how rare /common are the Itokawa type rubble piles versus the solid rock type Eros’es? ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/433_Eros ) Anybody know?

  2. Itokawa – one of perhaps many great, cosmic hacky sacks.

  3. James H.

    I just watched the remake of the Andromeda Strain a couple of weeks ago…I’m glad it’s landing on the other side of the planet, I’ll have time to stock up supplies and dig my shelter. I live in Texas, so guns are a given… :-)

  4. Michelle R

    Wow I had totally forgotten about that mission! Great to see it come back.

    And I hope it won’t go splat like genesis. But it shouldn’t, heh?

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Michelle R :

    I hope it won’t go splat like genesis. But it shouldn’t, heh?

    What you mean like this? :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_gNU2TLRQM

    Well the technique did work for another probe (Stardust if I recall right) didn’t it?

    EDITED to add : Yes, it was indeed the Stardust mission that successfully used this sample return capsule technique :

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stardust_(spacecraft) & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cm3Kl_8dkTk

  6. BJM

    Let’s not forget that the sampling process did not work. The “bullet” that was to have shot into the surface blasting sample into the holder did not release. It is possible that some sample got in just from the probe scraping along the surface but that is wishful thinking.

    Even without sample the mission accomplished much and provided us with quite a thrill ride out to an asteroid and back.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The Little Probe that Could.

    BJM, it is claimed that the sampling worked the second attempt (“last Saturday” below AFAIU). Perhaps, thruster failures and subsequent lost communications makes it all iffy to predict:

    “As of today, the team is still not certain as to exactly what went wrong after Hayabusa’s second touch-down landing Saturday and whether it will be able to initiate the return trajectory, but they are working hard to bring their bird home. [...]

    Hayabusa’s journey has been one of arduous challenges. Since it launched two and a half years ago, the spacecraft has encountered solar flares, the loss of two reaction wheels and its robot hopping lander, MINERVA. And, during its first touch-down landing on November 20, the team lost communication with Hayabusa for three critical hours. At first no one thought the spacecraft had even touched down and that’s what was reported globally. But once the team had a chance to review the detailed analysis, they realized their falcon had successfully touched down — twice, and lifted off, then landed for 30 minutes, until ground control commanded it to take off. The sample collection device, however, did not work during that descent.

    Although the data retrieved thus far indicates that the elements of the sample collection device worked last Saturday, scientists cannot be absolutely positive of what exactly Hayabusa picked up until it comes home, if it can get home. This much, however, is certain: no matter how small, the sample harbors secrets about and clues to how the asteroids and planets in our solar system formed. [Cribbed from Plan Soc article; follow the links from BA on.]”

    venomous Koalas

    But AFAIU they are only dangerous when cuddled. (You should never cuddle Koalas, AFAIK.)

    It’s the giant Koalas you have to watch out for. If they let go, you are either flattened or drowning in eucalyptus fecals. (Depending on what they let go.)

  8. MoonShark

    Whoa, cool! I checked out the Hayabusa site, and I especially like JAXA’s point system for rating mission success. It makes science slightly more like a video game! I should have expected no less from the Japanese :)

  9. BJM

    @Torbjörn Larsson

    I have followed the mission and am sure that this New Scientist description is correct:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18729-hayabusa-probe-sailing-towards-earth.html

    “After whisking it back to a clean room at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), scientists will carefully open the 40-cm capsule to learn, finally, whether it contains any asteroidal bits. It’s hardly a sure thing – despite sitting on Itokawa’s surface for 30 minutes, Hayabusa failed to fire two small tantalum pellets designed to kick surface material into a collection cone.”

  10. Never mind the deadly koalas, I just hope it did not pick up anything with tentacles, given the Japanese fascination for tentacles (at least in some quarters), we may not be safe!

  11. Pi-needles

    @ ^ MichaelL :

    I think PZ Myers of Cephalopod loving fame may disagree with your anti-tentacle comment there. ;-)

  12. Bobbie

    This is such an exciting mission, especially after all the mishaps and now to finally return to earth and give us new knowledge. What wonders will they find when this capsule is studied?

  13. Tod

    Phil wrote: “…that has not been through the perils of atmospheric re-entry directly.”

    Doesn’t “re-entry” mean entering again? I’d suspect that this hasn’t entered or re-entered any atmosphere in its life!

  14. jrpowell

    It’s like a real life Astroboy! Go go Hayabusa!

  15. John Paradox

    Hummed while reading this article:

    Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day
    Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away….

    J/P=?

  16. BJM

    Re: “Doesn’t ‘re-entry’ mean entering again?”

    It means reentering the Earth’s atmosphere after having left it some years ago. The first time Hayabusa entered Earth’s atmosphere was during its construction.

  17. Knight of L-sama

    Now, now Phil, koala’s aren’t venomous. They claw you to death. And Woomera isn’t really koala country, its red kangaroo and wombat country.

    Now wombats aren’t directly dangerous (as long as you don’t go sticking your hand down any holes) but do present a threat to the recovery vehicles if they run over one. The wombat will waddle off a bit scuffed up at worst and leaving behind a ruined car. But really its the kangaroos you have to watch out for. Reds are the biggest species and will kick your guts out your back if they want. For the sake of science just hope they don’t decide to use the probe for a game of outback soccer.

  18. Tessa

    Phill! I feel childish asking you this,even though i am fifth-teen, but would you mind just saying hi or something :) I admire your work a lot :) And will you ever write another book?
    Death From The Skies was great! C:

  19. Brian Too

    Good on the Japanese for not giving up on their probe. Go Hayabusa!

  20. Mad Non-Practicing Scientist

    Ahhh messier tidy up, you beat me to the drop bear comment

    and Phil, not everything will kill you, only snakes, spiders, sharks, octopus, jellyfish, crocodiles, kangaroos, dingoes, wombats,…. Ok most things will kill you, or as a friend of mine visiting from the UK said after walking on bindi’s (spiky grass) “what’s wrong with this country, even the f@$@ing grass attacks you”

  21. Tod

    @BJM:

    I think if the entire sentence were quoted, you would better understand the fact that “samples of asteroids” is the object here, not the actual spacecraft. See below:

    “While meteorites that fall to Earth give us samples of asteroids, this will be the first time we’ll have obtained one [a sample of an asteroid] that has not been through the perils of atmospheric re-entry directly.”

  22. Steve A

    Unfortunately, I’m not expecting much from this. From several sources, it’s not even clear it could make it back to earth. The most pessimistic is this from Spaceflight Now:

    “[Junichiro Kawaguchi, Hayabusa's project manager, ]chalks up the daring mission’s multiple comebacks to the project’s hardworking team and a lot of luck. He says he still is not sure Hayabusa can finish the trip home.

    “I’m not optimistic, but I would love to be surprised,” Kawaguchi said. ”

    It’s possible that samples traveled through the probe to be collected even though its sample method failed to work. But let’s not hype things too much. Like Kawaguchi, I expect nothing but I’ll be glad to be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong.

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