Monday, June 14, 2010

Hayabusa capsule lands in desert
JAXA scientists hope probe's surviving unit has asteroid sample

WOOMERA, Australia (Kyodo) A capsule released by the Hayabusa space probe was 
found in the Australian desert, possibly containing the first asteroid surface 
samples after the probe's successful seven-year voyage ended Sunday in a fiery 
re-entry, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

Hayabusa, whose mission was to probe the asteroid Itokawa about 300 million km 
from Earth, made an unprecedented round trip to an astronomical body other than 
the moon.

After its May 2003 liftoff, Hayabusa traveled some 6 billion km, making about 
five swings around the sun and surviving a series of technological problems 
that often threatened its return and put it three years behind schedule.

While the spacecraft itself burned up on re-entry, a special heat-resistant 
capsule, possibly containing sand from Itokawa, landed in the desert around 
Woomera in southern Australia after being separated from the space probe 
shortly after 8 p.m. local time, JAXA officials said Monday.

"We achieved this result based on technologies and science that have been built 
by our predecessors," Junichiro Kawaguchi, JAXA's Hayabusa project team leader, 
said during a news conference at JAXA's facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa 

"We managed to operate up to this point thanks to Hayabusa," Kawaguchi said. 
"I'm grateful to all members of the project team."

JAXA scientists confirmed the capsule by sight from helicopters prior to 
recovering the round-bottomed pan-shaped capsule, 40 cm in diameter and 20 cm 
in height, later Monday, JAXA said, while releasing photos they took from the 

While it is believed to have failed to collect rock samples from Itokawa, sand 
could have entered the capsule due to the impact of the landing, agency 
officials said in the hope of finding a substance that would help them 
understand the origin and evolution of the solar system.

Moon rocks have been brought back to Earth, but unlike asteroids, which are 
believed to be records of the early stages of the solar system, the moon has 
metamorphosed so it provides few clues about materials in the solar system's 
initial stage, JAXA said.

Even if any substance is found inside the capsule, it would take until around 
September for JAXA to determine whether it came from Itokawa.

Asteroids, sometimes called celestial fossils, are believed to hold traces of 
the early stages of the solar system.

"The most important goal of Hayabusa was to go and come back," said Yasunori 
Matogawa, a senior JAXA official involved in the mission, adding Hayabusa's 
successful mission has put Japan ahead of the world in terms of comprehensive 
solar-system exploration technology.

Itokawa is an asteroid in an orbit near Earth and Mars, discovered in 1998 by 
researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and named after the late 
Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.

In Hayabusa's control room at JAXA's Sagamihara facility, controllers cheered 
after confirming the light and radio waves emitted by the capsule while it was 
descending. But some JAXA officials said they feel sad at the loss of the probe.

JAXA also released a photo of Earth taken by Hayabusa immediately before its 
fiery re-entry at around 11:20 p.m. The probe took the photo with the same 
camera used for taking photos of Itokawa. The agency had been worried about 
whether it could successfully reboot the camera, which had been turned off to 
save energy after photographing the asteroid.

Numerous types of technology were employed in the demonstrator spacecraft 
during its trip to prepare for full-fledged space exploration in the future. 
They included the use of an advanced ion engine, autonomous navigation to an 
asteroid, landing, sample collection, and the return to Earth.

Three hours before entering Earth's atmosphere, Hayabusa (Falcon) released the 
capsule, which descended by parachute.

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