July 28, 2014

13.06.10: Hayabusa: a Sample Return Update.

  14.06.10 Update: They got it… as of this writing, it looks like the sample return capsule safely touched down in the Australian desert intact!
 
A long trip home! (Credit: JAXA).  
A long journey home! (Credit: JAXA).
Earth looming as seen from Hayabusa. (Credit: JAXA).
Earth looming as seen from Hayabusa. (Credit: JAXA).
  (Note: As of this writing, the search for the sample return capsule is still underway in the Australian outback… expect updates here and on our Twitter feed as the day unfolds!) 

  Hayabusa returned to Earth today, lighting up the skies over the Australian outback and the Woomera restricted zone slightly before 10:00 AM EDT. Good captures of the fireball and the re-entry were confirmed, and the probe burned up after releasing the sample return capsule to plunge over the Australian desert. But the big mystery remains; did Hayabusa in fact capture and return a sample of asteroid Itokawa, and in doing so succeed in a first ever sample return from an asteroid? Of course, we may not truly know the answer to this long awaited tale for some time, as engineers must first recover and retrieve the capsule for further analysis. All indications were that the sample stirring pellet gun did not fire during the asteroid encounter, but there’s always the slim chance that material may have gotten stirred up and caught in the sample retrieval horn. Hayabusa slammed into the atmosphere today at a terrific speed of 27,000 mph, one of the fastest re-entries ever attempted. All space fans were present watching the action in the Australian night via Twitter and UStream, further evidence that the realm of new school media has in fact arrived. NASA & SETI’s joint reentry observation program was also aloft in a DC-8 for the event, watching to grab a spectroscopic analysis of the fireball as it plunged to Earth. The trail seen was quite bright, lighting up the thin scud of clouds as viewed from the surface.  Robin Whittle and his Wife Tina reported a fireball “brighter than Venus” from their locale 25 km west southwest of Port Augusta. Re-entry came at an angle of 10 degrees and had to endure temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the decent. Toasts were raised worldwide as Hayabusa made its heroic return, a triumph for the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency (JAXA). Doubtless, it’ll be days to weeks for engineers to sort out the after action data; for example, scientists are still going over the Stardust aerogel returned from comet Wild years later.   A search of the Australian outback is underway and we’ll post more pics as we see em throughout the day… Kampai, Hayabusa! 

 

Video of the fireball in the Australian night… 

01:00 PM EDT: More dramatic pics have just come in via JAXA and the NASA/SETI team…

Image via JAXA's All Sky Observation System... (Credit: JAXA).

Hayabusa re-entry as seen by the JAXA Ground all-sky observation network. (Credit: JAXA).

  …and the most recent images from the joint SETI/NASA airborn observation program;

 Hayabusa re-entry...is that the sample return package flying formation to the right? (Credit: NASA/SETI).

Re-entry as seen from the air; is that a sample return capsule I see flying in formation to the lower right? (Credit: NASA/SETI).

   

06.06.10: Hayabusa Inbound!

Hayabusa's final trajectory. (Credit: JAXA).

Hayabusa's final trajectory. (Credit: JAXA).

 

   In one week, all eyes will be on the Australian desert as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agencies’ (JAXA) Hayabusa spacecraft returns from its heroic mission. Hayabusa has been the original comeback kid, surviving solar flares, fuel leaks, software malfunctions and loss of stabilization and thrusters to hobble home on a looping orbit two years later than planned. Hayabusa sent back stunning images of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa in November 2005, and briefly “touched down” on the orbiting rubble pile in an attempt to gather a small sample. This was to be done via firing several small pellets at the surface, stirring up collection material from the asteroid. Although all indications are that the guns didn’t fire during the probes two ascents, there is always the possibility that dust may have been kicked up and collected in the probe’s sample horn. In any event, a successful container return, empty or not, would be a first from an asteroid. This return will occur on June 13th at about 14:00 Universal Time at the Woomera Test Range in Australia. The sample return capsule will come in at high velocity in night time skies similar to the Stardust comet return in 2006. Several teams will coverage on the area to document the plunge of the 16-inch capsule, including researchers from NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute. Students from Brookline, Massachusetts will also be on hand for this exciting recovery. This tracking will be done aloft from a DC-8 aircraft, and the hopes are to obtain visible and near infra-red spectra as the spacecraft returns. Hayabusa has managed to get this far thanks to some innovative engineers and one surviving ion engine. As of this writing, TCM-3 course maneuvering began on June 3rd, and final precision course change will occur on June 10 to put it on track for Woomera. The craft will release the canister at a distance of 25,000 miles about three hours prior to entry interface; Hayabusa itself will burn up on reentry while the sample container will be slowed by drag chutes. Anyone who remembers the fate of Genesis in 2004 as it slammed into the Utah desert knows what a dicey maneuver this can be. Watch this space, and be sure to follow us on Twitter on and leading up to June 13th for all the latest Hayabusa updates!