Bringing an Asteroid back to Earth

Here’s the sciency goodness…

Just in case you thought the re-entry of the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft couldn’t get any better, NASA has just released an aerial video of the speeding sample return capsule followed by the break-up of the rest of the probe as the whole lot tumbled through the Earth’s atmosphere.

And, of course, the YouTube moment…

And just to be thorough…the sciency badness.  When your experiment has to deal with the Sun exploding in ways it never has before, right before trying to catch up to an asteroid and land on it (using ion engines no less), to get *any* results is a feat of super-human intelligence and ingenuity.  Oh, and if space-zombies start showing up in your neighborhood, this is a likely culprit.

In 2003, Hayabusa was launched from Uchinoura Launch Center, Kagoshima, Kyushu, Japan. Hayabusa means “peregrine falcon” in Japanese.

Using its ion engines, the space probe gave chase to Itokawa, an asteroid measuring 500 meters in length.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the first problem struck the probe; it was hit by one of those annoying solar flares. But this wasn’t an average solar flare, it was the biggest solar flare in recorded history! If you ever wanted a space mission to get off to a bad start, this would be it.

The probe sustained damage to its solar panels, which reduced the spacecraft’s power-producing efficiency. As Hayabusa’s means of getting around space was by using ion engines, the reduction in power delivered by the solar array meant the thrust of the engines suffered, causing a delay in Hayabusa reaching Itokawa.

Despite this early set-back, the probe reached Itokawa in 2005 and took some stunning imagery of the space rock. It was obvious from the photographs that the asteroid was formed of smaller chunks of rock held together by a mutual gravity (known as a “rubble pile”). These observations revealed that Itokawa has a surprisingly low density.

This is when things started to go even worse for the solar flare-battered probe. There was an attempt to get a closer look at the asteroid, but in doing so, the spacecraft overheated and switched into “safe mode” when accidentally making contact with the sun-baked side of Itokawa.

After regaining control, JAXA scientists made an attempt to grab samples of the asteroid to bring back to Earth. Unfortunately, that didn’t go smoothly either. The sampling device intended to kick pieces of asteroid from the surface into a collector didn’t work as it was supposed to. However, there is hope that some disturbed particles of asteroid dust made it on board during these maneuvers.

After a delayed limp back to Earth (the mission was supposed to return in 2007), Hayabusa is finally on its final straight, aimed right at the Australian outback.

Shortly before Sunday’s re-entry, the return capsule — hopefully containing the invaluable particles of asteroid dust — will separate from the main spacecraft, leaving the majority of the probe to burn up high in the atmosphere.

And that’s what we saw there, the spaceprobe burning up (and killing the zeno-bacteria zombie pod, hopefully) and the capsule heading down.  I’ve heard the chute deployed, and they should have the results in hand before too long.  Good stuff, chaps.  Err,…senseis?

UPDATE:  This post has a lot more info regarding some of the difficulties with the science.

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