Some quick news items:
1) The launch delay for Space Shuttle Discovery may be longer than originally announced: a fourth crack has been found in the external fuel tank. While this isn’t in an area where the fuel actually is (it’s in an instrument panel) I imagine NASA will be extremely conservative about launch. It’s the last scheduled flight for Discovery, and the penultimate Shuttle launch.
2) The Japanese space agency has announced that the asteroid mission Hayabusa did in fact successfully collect samples of the asteroid Itokawa! This is HUGE news. The probe landed on the asteroid in 2005 and returned to Earth earlier this year, but the sampling device failed. They were hoping a few particles from the asteroid made it into the chamber anyway, and it appears that they did! Scientists now have well over a thousand particles collected in situ from the surface of an asteroid sitting in their labs.
3) Climate scientists report that a sharp uptick in carbon dioxide 40 million years ago caused a huge temperature increase on Earth of 5 – 11°F. An increase like that today would be catastrophic, to say the very least. To those Congresscritters and others who claim CO2 is no big deal: I hope your Antarctic beach house is comfortable.
Tip o’ the thermometer to Dan Vergano
4) Some great news: the wonderful podcast 365 Days of Astronomy just got renewed for another year! This will be its third year of educating and entertaining people about astronomy. And it’s citizen-driven: you can create your own entry and upload it. I love the podcast, and if you listen to it you will too.
5) The Greenwich Royal Observatory has posted their Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest winners. Holy Emulsion! The pictures are incredible. Go take a look, and be inspired. I was.
The 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.
Wow! In this footage obtained from a DC-8 flying over Australia, you can see the probe breaking up, with individual pieces falling off and burning up as they ram through the Earth’s atmosphere at several kilometers per second. The last little piece you can see at the end is, I think, the hardened component that contains samples of the asteroid Itokawa, obtained when Hayabusa landed on its surface.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Itokawa is a 500-meter-long potato-shaped rubble pile, an asteroid that is not a solid rock like a boulder or mountain, but probably an assemblage of rubble held together by its own gravity. If one of these things were headed straight for us, we could lob nukes at it, even slam it with space probes at high speed to try to push it out of the way, and it would laugh at us. We need to understand these objects much better than we currently do if the time ever comes that we need to keep one from smacking into us. The sample of Itokawa contained inside that tiny glowing dot you saw in that video may just give us some of the answers we need to do that.
Science! It makes the world better, but it also just might save it, too.
The Japanese space probe Hayabusa — which went to the asteroid Itokawa, landed, and took a sample — is almost back to Earth. Sunday, around 14:00 UT, it will land in Woomera, Australia with its tiny piece of pristine outer space tucked inside.
There’s lots to say about this, but I’ll just point you first to Universe Today for the background info, then to Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog, because as always Emily has tons of info, including where to go to see the recovery live on the web.
If I can roust myself out of bed and have coffee made by 08:00 my time, I’ll be watching too. Don’t forget to follow Emily on Twitter to get live updates as they happen!
The 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.