Thursday, June 17, 2010




"Fly me to the moon, let me sing among those stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words take my hand. In other words, baby kiss me..."

It is believed that long, long ago it coalesced through gravitational attraction out of a conglomerate of lose rocky material into the entity it resembles today. It is very old, a billion years old, but only known to us here on Earth for a little over a decade. It measures roughly 885 feet long and 688 wide, a tiny speck in the cosmic scheme of things, and it wanders around the sun between the Earth and Mars. The name we have given it is 25143 Itokawa, named after a man considered the father of Japanese space development, Professor Hideo Itokawa.
For millenia it has wandered alone in the frozen depths of space, but for thirty minutes in November of 2005 it had a visitor.

On Japan's Kyushu Island, at the Uchinoura Launch Center in Kagoshima, a three stage MV-5 rocket was launched on May 9th of 2003 carrying the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) MUSES-C / Hayabusa (literal translation: Peregrine Falcon) mission into outer space. It's mission was to rendezvous with a near earth asteroid, study it, possibly land on it and collect samples, then return those samples back to us waiting patiently here on Earth. This has never been done before, and despite many trials and tribulations along the way, and the successful return of the sample container last Sunday, it is still uncertain if any asteroid dirt was returned. I certainly hope there was, but we just don't know as of yet. I'll explain why in a moment.
First of all JAXA must be complimented on the planning, operation, and apparent conclusion of this bold mission, battling through many unplanned setbacks, and carrying on at times when all seemed lost. Now on to what happened.
After using the Earth for a gravity assist in 2004, Hayabusa was set straight on course to the Itokawa asteroid, surviving two major solar flares on the way, one of which slightly damaged the 1,100 pound spacecraft's solar panels, causing a delay in its arrival (also reducing the time the craft could stay near the asteroid before needing to return home). However, it arrived at Itokawa in good shape on September 12, 2005, and was the first spacecraft to use 4 low thrust ion engines (a kind of electric thruster) to maneuver.
It stayed within close proximity of Itokawa for over two months making detailed observations of the asteroid's shape, composition, spin, topography, stuff like that. On November 12th it deployed it's Minerva (MIcro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid) hopper, a device designed to utilize the low gravity of the asteroid to hop around it's surface and take pictures. Unfortunately, Hayabusa was making an altitude adjustment just as the radio signal arrived for Minerva's deployment, sending the little robot into interplanetary space rather than the surface.
That sucked, but was hardly the end of the mission's troubles.
Although Hayabusa was not designed or intended to actually make a landing on Itokawa, it did so for approximately 30 minutes on November 19th. We don't know why. It wasn't supposed to, but it did. What it was supposed to do was make a couple of hops on the surface, firing some pellets into the asteroid's ground to stir up some dust for collection, but it appears that the pellets never fired, and during a second collection attempt it sprung a leak on its chemical rocket system, further damaging the craft, causing a loss of contact with it. The resulting loss of battery power forced most of the onboard instruments to shut down or restart incompletely.
Quite frankly things looked pretty grim for Hayabusa. Two of its three gyroscopes used for navigation and maneuvering were out. Its chemical thrusters froze or shut down. It couldn't orientate its solar panels toward the sun, so it experienced power losses, and two of its Ion engines had failed. Hopes for a return trip to Earth dimmed.
Early in 2006 a weak signal was detected from the satellite, and in the following months more telemetry was recovered indicating that most of the spacecraft's fuel had leaked to space. That meant the only way to get it back home was to rely on its one Ion engine, which was done, nudging the broken falcon toward Earth... three years later than had been originally intended.
After a 4 billion mile beleaguered journey the Hayabusa spacecraft detached its payload, the sample return capsule, over the skies of Australia last Sunday, which landed via parachute in the 49,000 square mile Woomera Prohibited Area, a weapons testing range in the south outback. The rest of the satellite burnt up in the Earth's atmosphere creating a magnificent fireworks display picked up by media organizations around the world. Four ground teams surrounded the area to locate the re-entry capsule by optical observation and a radio beacon.
It was reported by the Australian press that the 16 inch capsule had been successfully retrieved the following day. However that is not true. Upon approaching the capsule, mission team members observed it being carted off by a notoriously pesky local marsupial nicknamed "Kangaroo Jack," followed closely by his posse of three dingos and a rabid wombat.
The capsule hasn't been heard from since.

No comments:

Post a Comment