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Hayabusa - The Japanese Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Lunar & PlanetaryUPDATE: Japan's "Falcon" Wounded! Mission in Jeopardy!

Hayabusa (Japanese for Falcon) has encountered serious problems and the mission is in jeopardy. For an explanation of what the situation currently is, the Planetary Society article HERE is available for review.

A little known mission to return a sample of an asteroid to scientists on Earth has been underway for the past few years. Launched on May 9, 2003, the spacecraft's name is Hayabusa, and its mission is to rendezvous with asteroid Itokawa,

"Rubble-pile" Earth-Crossing Asteroid Itokawa.
land a very small robot craft named Minerva on its surface, scoop up a sample of asteroidal material, bring that back to Hayabusa, and eventually return it to Earth. Until the last two weeks, everything had gone pretty much as planned, but trouble now threatens to push back the return date for when the sample will be returned to Earth.

Asteroid Ida and its tiny moon Dactyl from the Galileo spacecraft's flyby in the early 1990's.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) spacecraft "Hayabusa" was launched on May 9, 2003 and arrived at its destination on September 12, 2005. Asteroid Itokawa has turned out to be what's known as a rubble-pile asteroid, an amalgam of rocks, rubble and dust held together by its miniscule mutual gravitational attraction. It just "looks" so much different from the other asteroids that we have images of, such as asteroid Ida below, instead of a large object with a solid looking surface spotted with anywhere from several dozen to several thousands of impact craters from other objects striking it. Itokawa is as rough as a cob with only a few spots of smooth surface area.

The smooth area seen in the image above is where the tiny (1 lb.) Minerva lander touched down for a sample of the asteroid's material for return to Earth.

While Hayabusa has been parked in orbit near Itokawa since September 12, the spacecraft has been experiencing some troubles in the past few weeks. Scientists all but lost contact with the craft 3 weeks ago, but are slowly regaining communications. The craft made its way to Itokawa by way of a newly developed Ion engine, and if the re-establishment of all communications and functions continues, the Ion engine will soon be re-ignited to allow Hayabusa to begin its return voyage to Earth. JAXA's website has all the latest information by clicking the Hayabusa info column here.

Click read more for the rest of this story.

The tiny shadow of JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft shows on the surface of the Earth-Crossing Asteroid Itokawa. Even the tiny Minerva lander (circled) can be seen right after its release from Hayabusa. Minerva successfully scooped up a small sample of Itokawa's surface material and then returned it to Hayabusa, but will that sample ever make it back to Earth as planned?

Asteroid Itokawa may impact Earth within the next few million years due to its occasional crossing of Earth's orbital path. Such an impact is not likely within the next few thousands of years, but sooner or later, an impact from Itokawa is likely at some distant date.

Itokawa is relatively small as asteroids go, at about 1,800 feet in length, by some 880 feet in diameter. In the image below, the large rock on the right-hand edge of the asteroid is estimated to be about 50 meters, or about 165 feet in length. While this object is likely rocky in composition, a similar-sized object of solid iron was what hit in the Arizona desert near Winslow and created Meteor Crater about 50,000 years ago. That impact carried so much energy with it that every living thing within a 50 mile radius was killed by the shock wave, so it isn't hard to see why even the smaller asteroids ALL need to be studied and thoroughly understood should we ever find ourselves in the path of one.

Hayabusa's troubles are not believed to be mission-killing at this time, but only time will tell.

Because of these troubles, however, the original June 2007 landing date will be pushed back to an as-yet-to-be-determined date. When it does finally return home, the sample canister will parachute down into the Woomera desert region of Western Australia where it will be picked up and returned to Japan for analysis of the precious cargo from a rocky asteroid, and thereby further our understanding of the asteroids and comets in our solar system.
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