Did Hayabusa return empty-handed?

By Phil Plait | July 2, 2010 12:34 pm

Hayabusa-earth-returnThe New York Times is reporting that the Japanese space probe Hayabusa — sent to physically land on the asteroid Itokawa, get a sample of the rock, and return to Earth — may have come back without such samples. While it’s not confirmed yet, it will be disappointing news if true.

Hayabusa was plagued with problems, from faulty engines to a misfiring mechanism designed to force pieces of the asteroid into a collection container. Despite these issues, engineers were able to coax the probe back into an Earth-return orbit and retrieve the sample container after a dramatic re-entry. Apparently there are traces of gas which may be vaporized rock from Itokawa, but no solid chunks. I’m sure they’ll be scouring the container to look for microscopic pieces as well.

hayabusa_itokawaI hope they find some. Itokawa is a rubble pile, an asteroid that has been shattered by collisions and held together by its own gravity. We know very little about such asteroids, and we need to find out more if we should ever see one on a collision course with Earth and want to push it out of the way. And we do want to do that!

But even if Hayabusa didn’t get any samples, Japan learned a lot of valuable information on how to run (and save!) a space mission of this depth and complexity, and scientists got a lot of info about Itokawa itself. Hayabusa voyaged for seven years in space, and despite these problems I think that the scientists and engineers at the Japanese space agency JAXA should be proud.

MORE ABOUT: Hayabusa, Itokawa

Comments (42)

  1. That is so sad. I can’t imagine how disappointed they must have been when they opened up and found nothing. Heartbreaking.
    You are right. It is a testament to human ingenuity that they pulled off the mission against all of the odds. And each one was a learning experience that helps the entire space community so even the loss has gains.

  2. Dragon

    It got out?

    Oh, boy…

  3. XPT

    Let’s face it, it would be a “scientific miracle” if they found anything interesting in the container. This was pretty clear. But I think the mission still is a success.

    I say more space probes!

  4. Dragon – That was great. I read your comment and had to think for a second and then I literally bust out laughing. Thanks! :)

  5. Kevin F.

    JAXA did a great job.

  6. rocket

    You all sound like a fuzzy brained teacher more concerned about a 8 year old’s self esteem than whether they can actually read.

  7. Jason B.

    I wouldn’t listen too much to the NYT piece. The main objective of the mission wasn’t ever to collect samples. Just look at the Wikipedia page, “the Hayabusa spacecraft is a platform for testing new technology and the primary objective of the Hayabusa project is the world’s first implementation of microwave discharge ion engines.” The ion engines were a huge success.

    I’ve also read somewhere that they have no idea if they’ve actually collected dust since the size of the particles they expect is too small to show up on the tests they’ve run (I don’t have a source for that though)

  8. Reed

    The NY times story is a bit confused on a number of points (for example, they got the reason for the delay in return wrong, and the “combining two broken engines to make one working one” thing happened much later)

    The “preliminary test” is presumably the CT scan, which would only have been expected to optimistically find 1mm+ particles, and AFAIK was primarily aimed at examining the condition of the capsule not it’s contents. The actual opening of the capsule should be happening fairly soon (or perhaps already happened), but JAXA has not released any results of that yet. If very small particles are found, it could take much longer to determine whether they are from earth or Itokawa.

    BTW, JAXA has published excellent pictures from the recovery process here http://jda.jaxa.jp/jda/p3_e.php?mode=search&genre=4&category=4064&mission=4069&type=6&photo_no=&submit=Search

  9. @6 – If the goal of the mission was to learn about “rubble pile” asteroids (and it was), and the probe successfully educated scientists about “rubble pile” asteroids (and it did), then I see that as a successful mission.

    It’s like anything that isn’t perfect is a failure. The fact that the probe flew 7 years into deep space and didn’t manage to pick up a rock out of a floating pile of rocks that nobody really knew anything about is disappointing, but that’s hardly the only role the probe had.

  10. Yeah, I’m with Reed on this: there’s nothing in here (apart from the reaction of the wider Japanese public) that hasn’t been better reported (or tweeted) by Emily Lakdawalla.

    Yep… http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?s=91ccd8eff0e6b3c4fdeb6805b487af3b&showtopic=1741&st=690&p=161547&#entry161547

    from this tweet: http://twitter.com/elakdawalla/statuses/17250840523

    (And I thought I was the one here who thinks there’s still a role for ‘old media’…)

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Yes, both NYT (unsurprisingly) and BA (surprisingly) seem to suffer from premature rejection.

    The capsule has AFAIU not been opened yet, but happened to be CT scanned for structural damage at a resolution of 1 mm or so.

    IIRC the next step will be a methodical search for particles on the um scale, whereupon the capsule will be stored for future more thorough searches. (Particles can be as small as 10s of nm.) Finding gas would raise the likelihood of success.

    I would at least give them time to do the actual search, and analyze the history of them (Itokawa or contamination) before making any proclamations.

    [Note in publication: Vagueofgodalming found the report I was vagueofreminding.]

  12. Old Rockin' Dave

    @rocket (#6): Launching a vehicle into space, keeping it alive for seven years, having it make a rendezvous with an asteroid and returning it safely to Earth – that IS rocket science, and with an ion engine, that IS atomic science.
    Congratulations to JAXA on doing a difficult task well. No sample? OK, an A-minus.

  13. masanori

    I am smiling as I see people here know very well about Hayabusa-kun!! Yes the NYTimes article looks like one that was written before learned enough. Let’s wait about what’s inside the container!! But better without too much expectations. If nothing inside and you really need it, let’s try it. again!!

  14. Alan Leipzig

    So….Hayabusa 2? Wouldn’t our current findings give us a better shot at another asteroid (is Itokawa still in a reachable position)?

  15. LSandman24

    @ Dragon (#2): Let’s just hope it looks like Natasha Henstridge. 😉

  16. Keith Hearn

    Hayabusa has given us lots of data on Itokawa that will be useful. The mission is a huge success, regardless of whether there is anything in the sample chamber. Finding some actual asteroid matter would be a nice milestone (first asteroid matter returned to Earth by a probe) and something for the team to be proud of, but I wonder how much scientific value it would really have?

    How much would we really learn about rubble pile asteroids from a couple of microscopic specs, even if they find any? We’ve already got lots of asteroid material that has fallen to earth, so we know pretty much what they’re made of. Would a couple of dust motes tell us much more than the fact that a couple of dust motes out of a 35 million tonne rubble pile were of a particular composition? Would that really help us understand how to deflect one any better?

    Like I said, the mission is a success, even more so because of the difficulties they had to overcome. But I really don’t see how a few microscopic bits of rock are going to help us learn to push a similar steroid out of the way. But maybe I’m wrong. If finding something in the sample chamber really can help, I’d be very happy to read an explanation of how.

  17. Ray

    More likely they found something and they are hiding it. And Phil is their willing stooge, reporting the news just as they wanted.

  18. Chief

    I looked at the collection pics on their web site and the andromeda strain flashed through my mind.

  19. Brian Too

    JAXA is developing their mission operations chops. Hayabusa is proof they can recover from some pretty serious problems and bring a ship home. Their ion engines worked and I’ll bet the next gen engines work even better.

    That’s a win in my books. Maybe not an out-of-the-park home run, but still a solid win. Congratulations to JAXA, the Japanese can be proud of their team.

  20. Joe R.

    @16: I think the point is that they were originally hoping for macroscopic material from the asteroid, though expectations for that dropped after the metal bullet failed to fire, and they were left hoping for only microscopic particles.

    So some (even most) aspects of the project were a success, and others were not. We learn from both.

  21. Jamey

    They got the probe *HOME*. To me, that speaks of the even more herculean efforts that would go into getting humans home, should a manned mission go wrong. Here’s to when we actually do follow our probes into space!

  22. pheldespat

    There’s some dust in the container. The news will be spread in due time.

  23. Not terribly surprised given the problems this mission as had from inception.

  24. keplerlover

    As XPT said, none of this surprising, so far, as it’s been known for a long time that the likelihood of having macroscopic samples was quite small. It is vastly premature to say that NO samples were obtained however. As lots of people have pointed out, the overall mission can only be regarded as a success though as several miracles were required to get the mission back at all (oops, will I be banned for using the term “miracles”?)

  25. psychos

    I have to say, as a first time commentator and long time lurker on one of my favorite blogs, I’m actually a bit disappointed that the headline and lede made me initially feel much worse about Hayabusa’s mission than is actually the case. Having read more sources (and that’s the great thing about a blog like this, there are always plenty of other sources to read from the posts themselves and within the comments!), I’ve concluded that Hayabusa did its mission—and more! Honestly, I’m really just posting because I feel like the mission has been somewhat slighted here in this post; I’ve never felt the need to comment negatively from any of the previous many baker’s dozens of posts I’ve read. (Well, except Phil posting anti-anti-vaxxer messages and supporting the evil Doctor Who and being a climate change denial denialist and all of that!…yeah, that wasn’t quite a serious sidebar. :))

  26. ellie

    I agree with most of the other posters that if there is a sample found – great! But if not, it really doesn’t dull the shine of the mission too much IMHO. There were many successes and intense challenges, and the JAXA deserves big congratulations.

    @ #13…
    I love your enthusiasm! I wish there were more of *that* in [and about] the US space program.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Sad to hear this. :-(

    Still I agree with others here in saying its premature to say that Hayabusa got nothing & even if it didn’t collect any samples, well Japan’s interplanetary peregrine falcon has still been an awesomely wonderful and pretty successful mission in some of the other things Hayabusa *has* done. Like visit and image another previously unseen (@ least close up) asteroid & a quite different looking one at that. :-)

    @21. Jamey :

    Here’s to when we actually do follow our probes into space!

    I’ll drink to that sentiment! [Raises beer. Smiles. Agrees completely.]

    A pedant could point out that in some ways we already *have* since Gagarin’s first flight and the subnsequent human space missions reaching their zenith with the Apollo Moon landings back in the early 1970’s and since stalled in Low Earth Orbit despite some incredible spacecraft being flown such as the Shuttle and various space stations. 😉

    But I know what you mean .. I think .. and I’d love to see us visit asteroid Itokawa along with Mars and a return to the Moon and further trips to … well everywhere possible really! 😉

  28. Pi needles

    @23. keplerlover

    oops, will I be banned for using the term “miracles”?

    No the words you can’t say here don’t include “miracles” although they do include [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] and of course [CENSORED]. Natch the worst thing about this censorhip is [CENSORED] 😉

    Seriously, the BA blog isn’t too bad & Phil is fairly tolerant with what he’ll put up with (I hope!) – he’s just got a slight case of the Ned diddly Flanders where swearings concerned. :-)

    Its because he wants this blog to be safe for work & school I know & ‘spose that’s fair enough.

  29. gss_000

    I’m sorry people are disappointed, but there is absolutely no reason to be because this has been the expected outcome for months. I actually blame a lot of the hype from the web reporting and blogs that failed to mention when it landed there was a good chance nothing would be found. For all the criticism on traditional media, its time to turn the same lens on these guys as well. We’re sort of seeing it here as well. BA, you failed to mention the trapped gas could just as well be from the atmosphere or another source and not the asteroid.

    The good news is even if nothing is found now, they’ll be keeping the capsule so future techniques may be able to gather something. I do hope something is found though, but I’m expecting squat with the hopes of being pleasantly surprised.

    Meanwhile, while I’m glad it returned, and agree it did do some technically amazing things, people have to step back and look at the mission for its failures otherwise we won’t build better missions. The engines failed, the asteroid retrieval method failed, it took years longer to get back than expected. Yes, it is good that it accomplished its basic mission, but that’s not what this was billed as. It was a sample retrieval mission. I hope they examine the failures very well.

    PS. There is a Hayabusa 2 mission already in the works. Bad news: Funding was dramatically cut in the budget so that it would get even less money for development than the original. Good news: recent mission successes like the IKAROS, Atkatsuki, and the return of Hayabusa have people talking about raising the amount to what is needed.

  30. gss_000


    “I love your enthusiasm! I wish there were more of *that* in [and about] the US space program.”

    Agreed. I remember the criticism here about the LCROSS mission and the “hype” of the viewing, months before we got awesome results from that very cheap mission that was a piggyback and add-on to the LRO launch because there was added payload space. In some ways, the dramatic difference in how people are reacting to the two missions is telling. No one was willing to wait then.

  31. I’m a little baffled about criticism saying I am being negative about the mission. Did you read the last paragraph of the post? Did you read the links I included? I never said this mission was a failure, I said it had a lot of setbacks but still managed to do a lot of good.

    Also, I didn’t see much else on this new development, so I was going with what the NYT said. Note that I talk about how this isn’t confirmed, etc.

  32. OtherRob

    Maybe they didn’t get anything because they didn’t ask Itokawa for permission to take anything before they landed. 😉

  33. Your Name Here

    Heck, I just find it amazing that they GOT THE PROBE HOME.


    First one to do so, as far as I know.

    Wow. Congratulations!

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Getting a bit off topic but interesting to note that Wikipedia on this day for today lists :

    2005 – The NASA space probe Deep Impact impacted the nucleus of the comet Tempel 1 (pictured), excavating debris from its interior to study its composition.

    It even has this image too :


    showing the moment of Deep Impact‘s impactor making its impact. 😉

    Missions to asteroids and comets are amazing and I just wish we could have a human mission to them planned too. :-)

  35. You can’t tell anything about a rock by ‘sniffing’ it, you need to knock off a piece. It’s been the week now. Get over it. They will never admit failure. It’s not a part of their character. Obviously the results are, ‘we can’t tell yet’, and always will be. I’m done waiting. Who knows, Roesetta mission (July 10) may actually report what happened.

  36. roy

    there is much to learn about mechanical systems in the cold vacuum of space.
    the weather of space is beyond our experience and a robot has to endure all those years with; one side being bathed in the whole e.m. spectrum and rarefied plasma with the other side in the deep cold. mechanisms have to be built as simply as possible to save weight and still function after being twisted by such great extremes. i know that metals in contact in pure vacuum will weld together. i couldn’t build a system that would work without many many failed attempts.

  37. Astrofiend

    Disappointing if it turns out that we don’t get anything, but we will eventually.

    The mission shows great promise for JAXA; hopefully with the knowledge obtained through a thorough debriefing, they should be able to make future missions more reliable. One thing’s for sure: they’re not wanting for innovative ideas!

  38. reidh

    Either they are lying, or they are incredibly inept, like the masterminds of that 190 million dollar probe to mars that never made it. Either they were lying or they are stupid phucks.

  39. Jon Hanford
  40. Neil

    RE: rocket@#6, reidh#38:

    Boy, there sure are some negative nellies with big mouths and empty heads who like to crow about others’ supposed “failures.” So tell us, geniuses, what they should do next…surely you have some actual ideas or useful constructive criticism to go along with all your dismissive proclamations of complete failure…right?

    I mean, it’s not like missions and experiments can have more than one objective, or have necessary, constructive phases of trial and error, or succeed in one area while failing in another…oh, no, if we don’t complete every last goal, and bring home a trinket for the public and the media on the first try, the whole mission must be deemed a failure, with appropriate shaming for all those involved…maybe even accusations of dishonesty, incompetency, or conspiracy!

    Frankly, you can bugger right off, as your minds and thoughts are obviously useless for any type of enterprise. If the attitudes of the media and general public start to mirror your own too closely, we might as well pack it in and give up on space exploration altogether. Heck, why even bother with science at all when there are so many easily dismissed, complete failures every day? I mean, it’s not like missions and experiments can have more than one objective, or have necessary, constructive phases of trial and error, or succeed in one area while failing in another…oh, wait, yes they can!

    And MarkL#38…so, you can tell more in a week from second-hand reports than the mission scientists themselves? You better go see Randi and collect your million, Mr. Psychic!
    Your comment perhaps wasn’t as pointlessly stupid as the other two, but I found your remarks about “their culture” unnecessary and offensive…asian stereotypes aside, please feel free to show me any culture or government that readily admits any failure of any kind…especially regarding expensive, easily politically dismissed scientific programs, and also when there is still salvageable progress made. How many astronauts have been spontaneously cremated over Florida and Texas? I guess NASA is such a failure we might as well pull the plug!

    Sorry, enough complaining from me! I am very glad to see that the vast majority of commenters here not only realize the value and importance of this work, but also have the enthusiastic, positive, yet realistic attitude that is needed to keep such work going and to get and keep the public support for scientific endeavors.

  41. Buzz Parsec


    I probably would have just told those bozos to f—off, your reply is much more useful! Thanks :-)

    Oh, and congratulations, Hayabusa!


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