Hayabusa – A 2010 Space Odyssey

The Hayabusa return capsule is located in the Australian desert. (image courtesy of JAXA)

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa made it back to Earth earlier this month (13th June 2010), after an epic flight lasting over seven years. As intended, the main probe burnt up on re-entry producing a spectacular fireball, while a small capsule fitted with a heat shield made a successful parachute landing at the Woomera Prohibited Range, South Australia. The capsule has now been successfully located and returned to Japan.

Launched in May 2003, the principal objective of the Hayabusa mission was to study at close range the asteroid Itokawa and collect a small sample of material from its surface for return to Earth. Unfortunately, it appears that the sample collection mechanism malfunctioned and it is unclear how much, if any, material was actually recovered from the asteroid. The engineers operating Hayabusa have faced and overcome enormous technical challenges in their struggle to bring the probe home. So has the mission been a success?

It will be very disappointing if the sample canister fails to contain any material from Itokawa. However, Professor Monica Grady of The Open University is optimistic about the chances of the Hayabusa capsule containing material from Itokawa. She is also hopeful that the OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Unit (PSSRI) will obtain a sample for further analysis. Procedures to open the capsule are currently underway at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) facility in Sagamihura. The lessons learnt from Hayabusa will be of great importance for future asteroid sample return missions. But it is the spectacular images taken by Hayabusa, showing Itokawa’s rubble-pile structure, that will probably be the most important legacy of this mission.

Asteroid 25143 Itokawa (image courtesy of JAXA)

Related Links: JAXA Hayabusa mission

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