October 19, 2017

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!    

28.01.10: A Key Organic Compound Found in Space.

The Stardust aerogel detector. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The Stardust aerogel detector. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

 

Stardusters rejoice; one of the largest citizen scientist projects has borne fruit. In 2004, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft passed through the outer envelope of comet Wild 2, allowing its sticky aerogel detectors to capture samples of gas and dust. Ever since the detectors parachuted safely to Earth on January 15, 2006, scientists, bloggers, and school kids have been pouring over the aerogel microscope scans looking for tell-tale dust tracks in a project known as Stardust@home, a vast citizen science project that might well be dubbed as the greatest science project done before bedtime.  Scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center announced late in 2009 that the molecule glycine has been detected in the aerogel detector. A key amino acid used in the construction of proteins, glycine is represented by the formula NH2CH2COOH. Scientists actually detected the molecules trapped in the foils at the rim of the detectors. Terrestrial glycine was ruled out due to the isotopic structure of the carbon atoms seen; Earth bound carbon tends to be of the Carbon 12 variety, while the glycine in the sample is the heavier Carbon 13, just what would be expected if the compound had come from the nucleus of a comet. It should be pointed out that the discovery of organic compounds is not the same as the discovery of life, but rather the key building blocks of such. This does, however, provide evidence that the raw materials to get life going may indeed be prevalent in the cosmos.