Japanese Rovers are Now on the Surface of an Asteroid, Sending Back Amazing Pictures

In December of 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa2 mission. As the second spacecraft to bear this name, Hayabusa2 was deployed by JAXA to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. By studying samples of the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu, scientists hope to shed new light on the history of the early Solar System

The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Ryugu in July of 2018, where it will spend a total of a year and a half surveying the asteroid before returning to Earth. On September 23rd, the satellite deployed its onboard MINERVA-II rovers onto the surface of Ryugu. According to the latest updates from JAXA, both rovers are in good condition and have recently sent back photographs and a video of the asteroid’s surface.

Continue reading “Japanese Rovers are Now on the Surface of an Asteroid, Sending Back Amazing Pictures”

Hayabusa’s Target Itokawa Formed 4.6 Billion Years Ago, But Then it Was Smashed Up About 1.5 Billion Years Ago

Within Earth’s orbit, there are an estimated eighteen-thousands Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), objects whose orbit periodically takes them close to Earth. Because these asteroids sometimes make close flybys to Earth – and have collided with Earth in the past – they are naturally seen as a potential hazard. For this reason, scientists are  dedicated to tracking NEAs, as well as studying their origin and evolution.

Continue reading “Hayabusa’s Target Itokawa Formed 4.6 Billion Years Ago, But Then it Was Smashed Up About 1.5 Billion Years Ago”

Stable Lava Tube Could Provide a Potential Human Habitat on the Moon

On October 5th, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon. Looking to the long-term, NASA and several other space agencies are also intent on establishing a permanent lunar base there. This base will not only provide opportunities for lunar science, but will facilitate missions to Mars and beyond.

The only question is, where should such a base be built? For many years, NASA, the ESA and other agencies have been exploring the possibility of stable lava tubes as a potential site. According to new study by a team of international scientists, the presence of such a tube has now been confirmed in the Marius Hills region. This location is likely to be the site of future lunar missions, and could even be the site of a future lunar habitat.

In 2009, data provided by the Terrain Camera aboard JAXA’s SELENE spacecraft indicated the presence of three huge pits on the Moon. These pits (aka. “skylights”) were of particular interest since they were seen as possible openings to subsurface lava channels. Since then, the Marius Hills region (where they were found) has been a focal point for astronomers and planetary scientists hoping to confirm the existence of lava tubes.

Artist’s impression of a surface exploration crew investigating a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

The recent study, titled “Detection of intact lava tubes at Marius Hills on the Moon by SELENE (Kaguya) Lunar Radar Sounder“, recently appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The team consisted of members from JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), Purdue University, the University of Alabama, AstroLabs, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NOAJ) and multiple Japanese Universities.

Together, they examined data from the SELENE mission’s Lunar Radar Sounder (LRS) from locations that were close to the Marius Hills Hole (MHH) to determine if the region hosted stable lava tubes. Such tubes are a remnant from the Moon’s past, when it was still volcanically active. These underground channels are believed to be an ideal location for a lunar colony, and for several reasons.

For starters, their thick roofs would provide natural shielding from solar radiation, cosmic rays, meteoric impacts, and the Moon’s extremes in temperature. These tubes, once enclosed, could also be pressurized to create a breathable environment. As such, finding an entrance to a stable lava tube would the first step towards selecting a possible site for such a colony.

As Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA and one of the co-authors on the study, explained in a University of Purdue press release:

“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base. But knowing these things is also important for basic science. We might get new types of rock samples, heat flow data and lunar quake observation data.”

The city of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube. A Purdue University team of researchers explored whether lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon. Credit: Purdue University/courtesy of David Blair

Granted, the LRS was not specifically designed to detect lava tubes, but to characterize the origins of the Moon and its geologic evolution. For this reason, it did not fly close enough to the Moon to obtain extremely accurate information on the subsurface. Nevertheless, as SELENE passed near the Marius Hills Hole, the instrument picked up a distinctive echo pattern.

This pattern was characterized by a decrease in echo power followed by a large second echo peak. These two echoes correspond to radar reflections from the Moon’s surface, as well as the floor and ceiling of the open lava tube. When they analyzed this pattern, the research team interpreted it is evidence of a tube. They found similar echo patterns at several locations around the hole, which could indicate that there is more than one lava tube in the region.

To confirm their findings, the team also consulted data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Consisting of two spacecraft, this collaborative effort collected high-quality data on the Moon’s gravitational field between 2011 and 2012. By using GRAIL data that identified mass deficits under the surface, which are evidence of caverns, the team was able to narrow down their search.

Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator and Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, was also a co-author on the paper. As he explained:

“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone. Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”

Arched passages in the main tube show the classic lava tube shape. The floor was the crust on a former lava lake that fell inward as it drained from beneath. Credit: Dave Bunnell/Under Earth Images/Wikipedia Commons

On Earth, stable lava tubes have been found that can extend for dozens of kilometers. To date, the longest and deepest to be discovered is the Kazumura Cave in Hawaii, which is over a kilometer (3,614 feet) deep and 65.5 km (40.7 mi) long. On the Moon, however, lava tubes are much larger, due to the fact that the Moon has only a fraction of the Earth’s gravity (0.1654 g to be exact).

For a lava tube to be detecting using gravity data, it would need to be several kilometers in length and at least one kilometer in height and width. Since the tube in Marius Hills was detectable, it is likely big enough to house a major city. In fact, during a presentation at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Conference, researchers from Purdue University showed GRAIL data that indicated how the tube beneath the MHH could be large enough to house Philadelphia.

This most recent study was also the subject of a presentation at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Conference. Similar evidence of possible stable lava tubes in the Sea of Tranquility was also obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) back in 2010. However, this latest combination of radar and gravity data has provided the clearest picture yet of what a stable lava tube looks like.

Similar evidence of lava tubes has also been discovered on Mars, and possible even Mercury. On Mars in particular,  chains of pit craters, broad lava fans, skylights and partially collapsed lava tubes all indicate the presence of stable tubes. Based on this latest study, future mission to the Red Planet (which could include the creation of a habitat) might also entail the investigation of these features.

In fact, lava tubes could become the means through which a human presence is established throughout the Solar System someday!

Further Reading: Purdue University, Geophysical Research Letters

Venus Express Probe Reveals the Planet’s Mysterious Night Side

Venus’ atmosphere is as mysterious as it is dense and scorching. For generations, scientists have sought to study it using ground-based telescopes, orbital missions, and the occasional atmospheric probe. And in 2006, the ESA’s Venus Express mission became the first probe to conduct long-term observations of the planet’s atmosphere, which revealed much about its dynamics.

Using this data, a team of international scientists – led by researchers from the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) – recently conducted a study that characterized the wind and upper cloud patterns on the night side of Venus. In addition to being the first of its kind, this study also revealed that the atmosphere behaves differently on the night side, which was unexpected.

The study, titled “Stationary Waves and Slowly Moving Features in the Night Upper Clouds of Venus“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy. Led by Javier Peralta, the International Top Young Fellow of JAXA, the team consulted data obtained by Venus Express’ suite of scientific instruments in order to study the planet’s previously-unseen cloud types, morphologies, and dynamics.

The atmospheric super-rotation at the upper clouds of Venus. While the super-rotation is present in both day and night sides of Venus, it seems more uniform in the day. Credits: JAXA, ESA, J. Peralta and R. Hueso.

Whereas plenty of studies have been conducted of Venus’ atmosphere from soace, this was the first time that a study was not focused on the dayside of the planet. As Dr. Peralta explained in an ESA press statement:

This is the first time we’ve been able to characterize how the atmosphere circulates on the night side of Venus on a global scale. While the atmospheric circulation on the planet’s dayside has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the dayside, and influenced by Venus’ topography.

Since the 1960s, astronomers have been aware that Venus’ atmosphere behaves much differently that those of other terrestrial planets. Whereas Earth and Mars have atmospheres that co-rotate at approximately the same speed as the planet, Venus’ atmosphere can reach speeds of more than 360 km/h (224 mph). So while the planet takes 243 days to rotate once on its axis, the atmosphere takes only 4 days.

This phenomena, known as “super-rotation”, essentially means that the atmosphere moves over 60 times faster than the planet itself. In addition, measurements in the past have shown that the fastest clouds are located at the upper cloud level, 65 to 72 km (40 to 45 mi) above the surface. Despite decades of study, atmospheric models have been unable to reproduce super-rotation, which indicated that some of the mechanics were unknown.

Artist’s impression of the atmosphere of Venus, showing its lightning storms and a volcano in the distance. Credit and ©: European Space Agency/J. Whatmore

As such, Peralta and his international team – which included researchers from the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain, the University of Tokyo, the Kyoto Sangyo University, the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (ZAA) at Berlin Technical University, and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Planetology in Rome – chose to look at the unexplored side to see what they could find. As he described it:

“We focused on the night side because it had been poorly explored; we can see the upper clouds on the planet’s night side via their thermal emission, but it’s been difficult to observe them properly because the contrast in our infrared images was too low to pick up enough detail.”

This consisted of observing Venus’ night side clouds with the probe’s Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS). The instrument gathered hundreds of images simultaneously and different wavelengths, which the team then combined to improve the visibility of the clouds. This allowed the team to see them properly for the first time, and also revealed some unexpected things about Venus’ night side atmosphere.

What they saw was that atmospheric rotation appeared to be more chaotic on the night side than what has been observed in the past on the dayside. The upper clouds also formed different shapes and morphologies – i.e. large, wavy, patchy, irregular and filament-like patterns  – and were dominated by stationary waves, where two waves moving in opposite directions cancel each other out and create a static weather pattern.

Examples of new types of cloud morphology discovered on the night side of Venus thanks to Venus Express (ESA) and the infrared telescope IRTF (NASA). Credits: ESA/NASA/J. Peralta and R. Hueso.

The 3D properties of these stationary waves were also obtained by combining VIRTIS data with radio-science data from the Venus Radio Science experiment (VeRa). Naturally, the team was surprised to find these kinds of atmospheric behaviors since they were inconsistent with what has been routinely observed on the dayside. Moreover, they contradict the best models for explaining the dynamics of Venus’ atmosphere.

Known as Global Circulation Models (GCMs), these models predict that on Venus, super-rotation would occur in much the same way on both the dayside and the night side. What’s more, they noticed that stationary waves on the night side appeared to coincide with high-elevation features. As Agustin Sánchez-Lavega, a researcher from the University del País Vasco and a co-author on the paper, explained:

Stationary waves are probably what we’d call gravity waves–in other words, rising waves generated lower in Venus’ atmosphere that appear not to move with the planet’s rotation. These waves are concentrated over steep, mountainous areas of Venus; this suggests that the planet’s topography is affecting what happens way up above in the clouds.

This is not the first time that scientists have spotted a possible link between Venus’ topography and its atmospheric motion. Last year, a team of European astronomers produced a study that showed how weather patterns and rising waves on the dayside appeared to be directly connected to topographical features. These findings were based on UV images taken by the Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) on board the Venus Express.

Schematic illustration of the proposed behaviour of gravity waves in the vicinity of mountainous terrain on Venus. Credit: ESA

Finding something similar happening on the night side was something of a surprise, until they realized they weren’t the only ones to spot them. As Peralta indicated:

It was an exciting moment when we realized that some of the cloud features in the VIRTIS images didn’t move along with the atmosphere. We had a long debate about whether the results were real–until we realised that another team, led by co-author Dr. Kouyama, had also independently discovered stationary clouds on the night side using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) in Hawaii! Our findings were confirmed when JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft was inserted into orbit around Venus and immediately spotted the biggest stationary wave ever observed in the Solar System on Venus’ dayside.

These findings also challenge existing models of stationary waves, which are expected to form from the interaction of surface wind and high-elevation surface features. However, previous measurements conducted by the Soviet-era Venera landers have indicated that surface winds might too weak for this to happen on Venus. In addition, the southern hemisphere, which the team observed for their study, is quite low in elevation.

And as Ricardo Hueso of the University of the Basque Country (and a co-author on the paper) indicated, they did not detect corresponding stationary waves in the lower cloud levels. “We expected to find these waves in the lower levels because we see them in the upper levels, and we thought that they rose up through the cloud from the surface,” he said. “It’s an unexpected result for sure, and we’ll all need to revisit our models of Venus to explore its meaning.”

Artist’s impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet’s atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

From this information, it seems that topography and elevation are linked when it comes to Venus’ atmospheric behavior, but not consistently. So the standing waves observed on Venus’ night side may be the result of some other undetected mechanism at work. Alas, it seems that Venus’ atmosphere – in particular, the key aspect of super-rotation – still has some mysteries for us.

The study also demonstrated the effectiveness of combining data from multiple sources to get a more detailed picture of a planet’s dynamics. With further improvements in instrumentation and data-sharing (and perhaps another mission or two to the surface) we can expect to get a clearer picture of what is powering Venus’ atmospheric dynamics before long.

With a little luck, there may yet come a day when we can model the atmosphere of Venus and predict its weather patterns as accurately as we do those of Earth.

Further Reading: ESA, Nature Astronomy

New Japanese mission will be going to the Moons of Mars

In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies hope to mount some exciting missions to the Moon and to Mars. Between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), there is simply no shortage of proposals for Lunar bases, crewed missions to Mars, and robotic explorers to both.

However, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a different mission in mind when it comes to the coming decades. Instead of exploring the Moon or Mars, they propose exploring the moons of Mars! Known as the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, the plan is to have a robotic spacecraft fly to Phobos and Deimos to explore their surfaces and return samples to Earth for analysis.

The spacecraft would be deployed sometime in the 2020s, and would be tasked with two main objectives. The first would be to help scientists determine the origins of Phobos and Deimos, which has been a subject of debate for some time. Whereas some believe that these moons are capture asteroids, others have argued that they were created when fragments ejected from Mars (due to giant impacts on the surface) came together.

Phobos and Deimos, photographed here by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are tiny, irregularly-shaped moons that are probably strays from the main asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

As Dr. Masaki Fujimoto, a Professor at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and the Team Manager of the MMX mission, told Universe Today via email:

“MMX will land on Phobos and acquire samples of at least 10 grams from more than 2cm below the surface. Analysis of samples returned to Earth will clarify the nature of the asteroid that led to the formation of the moon. Deimos observations will be limited to flyby imaging, but combined with ground data to be obtained for Phobos, we should be able to constrain its origin in a substantial manner.”

The second objective focuses on the characterization of conditions both on and around the moons of Mars. This includes surface processes on Phobos and Deimos, the nature of the environment in which they orbit, and the global and temporal dynamics of Mars atmosphere – i.e. dust, clouds and water vapor.

“Airless bodies such as asteroids are exposed to space weathering processes,” said Dr. Fujimoto. “In the case of Phobos, an impact event on the surface releases many dust particles. Unlike an asteroid in the interplanetary space, dust particles will not be simply lost but will orbit around Mars and return and hit the Phobos surface. This is regarded as the reason that Phobos has a very thick regolith layer. Knowing this process is to know the attributes of returned samples better.”

Artist’s impression of the MMX spacecraft in launch configuration. Credit: JAXA/ISAS

Another major objective of this mission is to learn more about small bodies coming from the outer Solar System. As the outermost rocky planet, Mars’ orbit marks the boundary between the terrestrial planets – which have solid surfaces and variable atmospheres (ranging from super-thing to dense) – and the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System that have highly dense atmospheres.

Because of this, studying Mars’ moons, determining their origin, and learning more about the Martian orbital environment could teach us a lot about the evolution of the Solar System. Not only does such a mission present opportunities to study how planets like Mars formed, but also the process of by which primordial materials were transported between the inner and outer Solar Systems during its early history. As Dr. Fujimoto explained:

“These small bodies were the delivery capsules for water from outside the Frost Line to the Habitable Zone of the solar system, where our planet is situated. Earth was born dry and needed delivery of water for its habitability to be switched on at all. It is likely that one of the (failed) deliveries led to the formation of Phobos, and, sample analysis will tell us about the failed capsule.

“This is obviously the case when the capture idea turns out to be correct. Even for the case of giant impact, the scale of the impact is considered to be not too gigantic to alter fully the materials, implying that sample analysis would tell us something about the impactor asteroid.”

As it stands, the probe is scheduled to launch in September 2024, taking advantage of the fact that Earth and Mars will be at the nearest point to each other  in their orbits at this time. It will arrive around Mars by 2025, conduct its studies for a three-year period, and then return to Earth by July of 2029. Once there, it will rely on a suite of scientific instruments to conduct surveys and obtain samples.

Artist’s concept of the MMX spacecraft in orbital configuration, with its scientific instruments indicated. Credit: JAXA/ISAS

These instruments include a Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS), a Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRS), a Wide Angle Multiband Camera (WAM), a Telescopic Camera (TL), a Circum-Martian Dust Monitor (CMDM), a Mass Spectrum Analyzer (MSA), and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument.

Details on the mission profile and the instruments were included in a presentation made by Dr. Fujimoto and the MMX Science Board members at the recent 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The mission profile and information on the objectives were also made available in an abstract that was issued in advance of the upcoming European Planetary Science Congress 2017.

The mission will also leverage some key partnerships that JAXA is currently engaged in. These include an agreement reached with NASA back in late March to include the Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS) in the MMX’s instrument suite.  And in April, JAXA and the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) signed an Implementation Agreement (IA) that would allow the French national space agency to participate in the mission as well.

If all goes as planned, JAXA will be spending the next decade gathering information that could bridge findings made by Lunar and Martian missions. Whereas lunar research will reveal things about the history of the Moon, and Martian missions will offer new insights into Mars’ geology and evolution (and perhaps if life still exists there!), the MMX mission will reveal things about the history of Mars’ moons and the early Solar System as a whole.

Other proposals that JAXA is currently working on include the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and SPICA, two missions that will explore Jupiter’s Galilean Moons and conduct infrared astronomy (respectively) in the coming decade.

Further Reading: MMX

Returned Samples Of Asteroid Itokawa Show Violent 4.5 Billion Year History

The surface patterns on one of the microscopic dust particles from asteroid Itokawa. Image: JAXA

In 2003, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa probe. Its mission was to rendezvous with asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005. Once there, it studied a number of things about Itokawa, including its shape, topography, composition, colour, spin, density, and history. But the most exciting part of its mission was to collect samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth.

The mission suffered some complications, including the failure of Minerva, Hayabusa’s detachable mini-lander. But Hayabusa did land on the asteroid, and it did collect some samples; tiny grains of material from the surface of Itokawa. This was the first time a mission had landed somewhere and returned samples, other than missions to the Moon.

The Hayabusa spacecraft burned up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but the capsule containing the samples survived. The glowing piece on the bottom front of the debris stream is the sample capsule. Image: NASA Ames, Public Domain
The Hayabusa spacecraft burned up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, but the capsule containing the samples survived. The glowing piece on the bottom front of the debris stream is the sample capsule. Image: NASA Ames, Public Domain

Once the collected grains made it back to Earth in 2010, and were confirmed to be from the asteroid, scientists got excited. These grains would be key to helping understand the early Solar System when the planetary bodies were formed. And they have revealed a sometimes violent history going back 4.5 billion years.

The grains themselves are truly microscopic, at just over 10 micrometers in size. The marks and surface patterns on them are measured in nanometers. Initially, all the marks on the surfaces of the particles were thought to be of one type. But the team behind the study used electron microscopes and X-Ray Microtomography to reveal four different types of patterns on their surfaces.

One 4.5 billion year old pattern shows crystallization from intense heat. At this time period, Itokawa was part of a larger asteroid. The second pattern indicates a collision with a meteor about 1.3 billion years ago. Another pattern was formed by exposure to the solar wind between 1 million and 1,000 years ago. A fourth pattern detected by scientists shows that the particles have been rubbing against each other.

The team has concluded that Itokawa didn’t always exist in its current shape and form. When it was formed over 4 billion years ago, it was about 40 times bigger than it is now. That parent body was destroyed, and the researchers think that Itokawa re-formed from fragments of the parent body.

If there is still any lingering doubt about the violent nature of the Solar System’s history, the grains from Itokawa help dispel it. Collision, fragmentation, bombardments, and of course solar wind, seem to be the norm in our Solar System’s history.

The return of these samples was a bit of a happy accident. The sample collection mechanism on Hayabusa suffered a failure, and the returned dust grains were actually kicked up by the landing of the probe, and some ended up in the sample capsule.

For their part, JAXA has already launched Hayabusa’s successor, Hayabusa 2. It was launched in December 2014, and is headed for asteroid 162173 Ryugu. It should reach its destination in July 2018, and spend a year and a half there. Hayabusa 2 is also designed to collect asteroid samples and return them to Earth, this time using an explosive device to dig into the asteroid’s surface for a sample. Hayabusa 2 should return to Earth in December 2020.

An artist's image of Hayabusa leaving Earth. Image credit: JAXA
An artist’s image of Hayabusa leaving Earth. Image credit: JAXA

Hayabusa suffered several failures, including the failure of its mini-lander, problems with sample collection, and it even suffered damaged to its solar panels caused by a solar flare, which reduced its power and delayed its arrival at Itokawa. Yet it still ended up being a success in the end.

If Hayabusa 2 can avoid some of these problems, who knows what we may learn from more intentional samples. Sample missions are tricky and complex. If Hayabusa can return samples, it would be only the fourth body to have samples successfully returned to Earth, including the Moon, asteroid Itokawa, and comet Wild 2.

Hayabusa 2 to Flyby the Earth Tomorrow

A space-faring friend pays our fair planet a visit this week on the morning of December 3rd, as the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft passes the Earth.

The Flyby

Rick Baldridge on the SeeSat-L message board notes that Hayabusa-2 will pass 9,520 kilometers from the Earth’s center or 3,142 kilometers/1,885 miles from the Earth’s surface at 10:08 UT/5:08 AM EST on Thursday, December 3rd, passing from north-to-south above latitude 18.7 north, longitude 189.8 east just southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Unfortunately, the sighting opportunities for Hayabusa-2 aren’t stellar: even at its closest, the 1.5 meter-sized spacecraft is about nine times more distant than the International Space Station and satellites in low Earth orbit. To compound the challenge, Hayabusa-2 passes into the Earth’s shadow from 9:58 UT to 10:19 UT.

Image credit: JAXA
The path of Hayabusa-2 past the Earth. Image credit: JAXA

Still, skilled observers with large telescopes and sophisticated tracking rigs based along the Pacific Rim of North America might just catch sight of Hayabusa-2 as it speeds by. The JPL Horizons ephemeris generator is a great resource to create a customized positional chart in right ascension and declination for spacecraft for your given location, including Hayabusa-2.

Image credit: JAXA
The Earth-Moon pair snapped by Hayabusa-2 on November 26th from about three million kilometers distant. Image credit: JAXA

Hayabusa-2 won’t crack 20 degrees elevation for observers along the U.S. West Coast, putting it down in the atmospheric murk of additional air mass low to the horizon. This also tends to knock the brightness of objects down a magnitude or so… estimates place Hayabusa-2 at around magnitude +13 shortly before entering the Earth’s shadow. That’s pretty faint, but still, there are some dedicated observers with amazing rigs out there, and it’s quite possible someone could nab it. Hawaii-based observers should have the best shot at it, though again, it’ll be in the Earth’s shadow at its very closest…

Amateur radio satellite trackers are also on the hunt for the carrier-wave signal of the inbound Hayabusa-2 mission. You can also virtually fly along with the spacecraft until December 5th: (H/T @ImAstroNix):

A simulation of tomorrow's flyby. Image Credit: JAXA
A simulation of tomorrow’s flyby. Image Credit: JAXA

Probably the best eye-candy images will come from the spacecraft itself: already, Hayabusa-2 has already snapped some great images of the Earth-Moon pair using its ONC-T optical navigation camera during its inbound leg.

Image credit: JAXA
A close-up of Hayabusa-2’s view of the Earth and Moon. Image credit: JAXA

Other notable missions used Earth flybys en route to their final destinations, including Cassini in 1999, and Juno in 2013. Cassini’s return caused a bit of a stir as it has a plutonium-powered RTG aboard, though Earth and its inhabitants were never in danger. A nuclear RTG actually reentered during the return of Apollo 13, with no release of radioactive material. Meant for the ALSEP science package on the surface of the Moon, it was deposited on the reentry of the Lunar Module over the Marinas Trench in the South Pacific. And no, Hayabusa-2 carries no radioactive material, and in any event, it’s missing the Earth by about a quarter of its girth.

The successor to the Hayabusa (‘Peregrine Falcon’ in Japanese) mission which carried out a historic asteroid sample return from 25143 Itokawa in 2010, Hayabusa-2 launched atop an H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima, Japan exactly a year ago tomorrow on a six year mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu. This week’s Earth flyby will boost the spacecraft an additional 1.6 kilometers per second to an outbound velocity towards its target of 31.9 kilometers per second post-flyby.

Image credit: JAXA
Launch of an H-IIA rocket with Hayabusa-2. Image credit: JAXA

Like its predecessor, Hayabusa-2 is a sample return mission. Unlike the original Hayabusa, however, Hayabusa-2 is more ambitious, also carrying the MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) lander and an explosive seven kilogram impactor. Hayabusa-2 will deploy a secondary camera in orbit to watch the detonation and will briefly touch down at the impact site to collect material.

If all goes as planned, Hayabusa-2 will return to Earth in late 2020.

NASA has its own future asteroid sample return mission planned, named OSIRIS-REx. This mission will launch in September of next year to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in September 2019 and return to Earth in September 2023.

An artist's conception on Hayabusa 2 at asteroid . Image credit: JAXA
An artist’s conception on Hayabusa 2 at asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Image credit: JAXA

We’re entering the golden age of asteroid exploration, for sure. And this all comes about as the U.S. authorized asteroid mining just last week (or at least, as stated, ‘asteroid utilization’) under the controversial U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. But the original Hayabusa mission brought back mere micro-meter-sized dust grains, highlighting just how difficult asteroid mining is using present technology…

Perhaps, for now, its more cost effective to simply wait for the asteroids to come to us as meteorites and just scoop ’em up. We’ll be keeping an eye out over the next few days for images of Hayabusa-2 as it speeds by, and more postcards of the Earth-Moon system from the spacecraft as it heads towards its 2018 rendezvous with destiny.

International Space Station Achieves 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence in Orbit

The International Space Station (ISS) achieved 15 years of a continuous human presence in orbit, as of today, Nov. 2, aboard the football field sized research laboratory ever since the first Russian/American crew of three cosmonauts and astronauts comprising Expedition 1 arrived in a Soyuz capsule at the then much tinier infant orbiting complex on Nov. 2, 2000.

Today, the space station is host to the Expedition 45 crew of six humans – from America, Russia and Japan – that very symbolically also includes the first ever crew spending one year aboard and that highlights the outposts expanding role from a research lab to a deep space exploration test bed for experiments and technologies required for sending humans on interplanetary journeys to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The ISS was only made possible by over two decades of peaceful and friendly international cooperation by the most powerful nations on Earth on a scale rarely seen.

“I believe the International Space Station should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last week during remarks to the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC., on October 28, 2015.

“Exploration has taught us more than we have ever known about our Universe and our place in it.”

“The ISS has already taught us what’s possible when tens of thousands of people across 15 countries collaborate so that human beings from different nations can live and work in space together.”

“Yet, for all these accomplishments, when you consider all the possibilities ahead of us you can only reach one conclusion; We are just getting started!”

6 person ISS Expedition 45 Crew celebrates 15 Years of operation with humans on 2 Nov 2015.  Credit: NASA
6 person ISS Expedition 45 Crew celebrates 15 Years of operation with humans on 2 Nov 2015. Credit: NASA

“No better place to celebrate #15YearsOnStation! #HappyBday, @space_station! Thanks for the hospitality! #YearInSpace.” tweeted NASA astronaut Scott Kelly from the ISS today along with a crew portrait.

The space station is the largest engineering and construction project in space combining the funding, hardware, knowhow, talents and crews from 5 space agencies and 15 countries – NASA, Roscomos, ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space.  Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

The collaborative work in space has transcended our differences here on Earth and points the way forward to an optimistic future that benefits all humanity.

The station orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. It measures 357 feet (109 meters) end-to-end and has an internal pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, equivalent to that of a Boeing 747.

The uninterrupted human presence on the station all began when Expedition 1 docked at the outpost on Nov. 2, 2000, with its first residents including Commander William Shepherd of NASA and cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko of Roscosmos.

For the first station trio in November 2000, the vehicle included three modules; the Zarya module and the Zvezda service module from Russia and the Unity module from the US.

In this photo, Expedition 1 crew members (from left to right) Commander Bill Shepherd, and Flight Engineers Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev pose with a model of their home away from home.  Image Credit: NASA
In this photo, Expedition 1 crew members (from left to right) Commander Bill Shepherd, and Flight Engineers Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev pose with a model of their home away from home. Image Credit: NASA

Over the past 15 years, after more than 115 construction and logistics flight, the station has grown by leaps and bounds from its small initial configuration of only three pressurized modules from Russian and America into a sprawling million pound orbiting outpost sporting a habitable volume the size of a six bedroom house, with additional new modules and hardware from Europe, Japan and Canada.

The ISS has been visited by over 220 people from 17 countries.

The “1 Year ISS crew” reflects the international cooperation that made the station possible and comprises current ISS commander NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who are now just past the half way mark of their mission.

“Over the weekend, I called NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently halfway through his one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, to congratulate him on setting the American records for both cumulative and continuous days in space,” Bolden said in a NASA statement released today.

“I also took the opportunity to congratulate Commander Kelly — and the rest of the space station crew — for being part of a remarkable moment 5,478 days in the making: the 15th anniversary of continuous human presence aboard the space station.”

Scott Kelly, U.S. astronaut and commander of the current Expedition 45 crew, broke the US record for time spent in space on Oct. 16, 2015. Credit: NASA
Scott Kelly, U.S. astronaut and commander of the current Expedition 45 crew, broke the US record for time spent in space on Oct. 16, 2015. Credit: NASA

The complete Expedition 45 crew members include Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

For the first nine years, the station was home to crews of two or three. Starting in 2009 the crew size was doubled to a permanent crew of six humans after the habitable volume, research facilities, equipment and supporting provisions had grown sufficiently.

“Humans have been living in space aboard the International Space Station 24-7-365 since Nov. 2, 2000. That’s 15 Thanksgivings, New Years, and holiday seasons astronauts have spent away from their families. 15 years of constant support from Mission Control Houston. And 15 years of peaceful international living in space,” says NASA.

Expedition 45 Crew Portrait: Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  Credit: NASA/Roscosmos/JAXA
Expedition 45 Crew Portrait: Station Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos/JAXA

The US contributed and built the largest number of segments of the space station, followed by Russia.

NASA’s Space Shuttles hauled the US segments aloft inside the orbiters huge payload bay, starting from the first construction mission in 1998 carrying the Unity module to the final shuttle flight STS-135 in 2011, which marked the completion of construction and retirement of the shuttles.

With the shuttle orbiters now sitting in museums and no longer flying, the Russian Soyuz capsule is the only means of transporting crews to the space station and back.

The longevity of the ISS was recently extended from 2020 to 2024 after approval from President Obama. Most of the partners nations have also agreed to the extension. Many in the space community believe the station hardware is quite resilient and hope for further extensions to 2028 and beyond.

“The International Space Station, which President Obama has extended through 2024, is a testament to the ingenuity and boundless imagination of the human spirit. The work being done on board is an essential part of NASA’s journey to Mars, which will bring American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s,” says Bolden.

“For 15 years, humanity’s reach has extended beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Since 2000, human beings have been living continuously aboard the space station, where they have been working off-the-Earth for the benefit of Earth, advancing scientific knowledge, demonstrating new technologies, and making research breakthroughs that will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space.”

A key part of enabling long duration space missions to Mars is the 1 Year ISS Mission.

Scott Kelly recently set the US records for most time in space and longest single space mission.

In coming years, additional new pressurized modules and science labs will be added by Russia and the US.

And NASA says the stations crew size will expand to seven after the US commercial Starliner and Dragon space taxis from Boeing and SpaceX start flying in 2017.

NASA is now developing the new Orion crew capsule and mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket to send astronauts to deep space destination including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

In the meantime, Kelly and his crew are also surely looking forward to the arrival of the next Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship carrying science experiments, provisions, spare parts, food and other goodies after it blasts off from Florida on Dec. 3 – detailed in my story here.

Infographic: 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence Aboard the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA
Infographic: 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the final flight to the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch HTV-5 Chase the International Space Station From Your Backyard

It’s away… and the hunt is on. The Japanese Space Agency’s H-II Transfer Vehicle Kounotori automated cargo spacecraft rocketed out of the Tanegashima Space Center today, headed for the ISS.

Loaded with over 6,000 kilograms of experiments and supplies, HTV-5 is on a five day odyssey that you can follow from your backyard, starting tonight. Kounotori stands for ‘white stork,’ or the purveyor of joyful things in Japanese, and in this instance, the name is appropriate, as the HTV-5 is delivering much needed supplies to the International Space Station.

HTV-5 during encapsulation. Credit: JAXA

Launch occurred this morning at 11:50 UT/7:50 AM EDT, hitting an instantaneous window to chase after the International Space Station for grapple and berthing on Monday.

Unlike the Progress and Soyuz spacecraft, which have the capability to rendezvous and dock with the ISS, the HTV-5 and Dragon spacecraft are grappled with the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm 2,  and stowed or ‘berthed’ in place.

Grapple with berthing to the nadir node of the Harmony module is set for Monday, August 24th, at 11:54 UT/7:54 AM EDT.

Unlike other vehicles that periodically visit the International Space Station, the HTV does not incorporate deployable solar panels, but instead, has panels wrapped around its body. This can also lend itself to some pretty bright flares as it passes overhead.

Grapple of HTV-4 by the Canadarm 2. Image credit: NASA/JAXA
Grapple of HTV-4 by the Canadarm 2. Image credit: NASA/JAXA

The H-IIB is a two stage rocket, and ground observers should keep an eye out for the second stage booster during ISS passes as well. Debris was also jettisoned during last weeks’ spacewalk, and there’s no word as of yet if this has reentered as well, though ground-spotters have yet to report any sightings. This is a typical EVA maneuver, and cosmonauts conducted the release in such a fashion as to pose no danger to the ISS or HTV. Debris jettisoned from the ISS typically reenters the Earth’s atmosphere after about a week or so.

Prospects for Seeing HTV-5 this Weekend

Grapple of the HTV-5 will occur Monday over central Asia. Keep in mind, the HTV-5 will have to perform several burns to reach the elevation of the ISS: this means its orbit will evolve daily. Heavens-Above and NASA’s Spot the Station tracker typically publish sighting predictions for cargo vehicles such as the HTV-5 along with ISS sighting opportunities online.

And we’ll be posting daily updates and maps as @Astroguyz on Twitter. We see the best prospects for spotting the ISS and HTV5 over the next few days leading up to Monday’s berthing are for latitudes 25-45 north (dusk) and latitudes 30-50 south (dawn). That covers a wide range of observers in Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia/New Zealand.

A capture of the passage of HTV-4. Image credit and copyright: Fred Locklear
A capture of the passage of HTV-4. Image credit and copyright: Fred Locklear

We’ve caught sight of JAXA’s HTV on previous missions, and contest to it being a conspicuous object.

Pro-tip: the trick to a successful sighting is to start watching early. The HTV-5 will be fainter than the brilliant ISS, but still visible to the naked eye at about magnitude +1 to +2 or so when directly overhead. The HTV-5 will follow the same orbital trace as the station. Spot the ISS and still don’t see HTV-5? Linger for a bit and keep watching after the ISS has passed, as the HTV might follow shortly. And the darker the skies you can find to carry out your HTV-5 vigil under, the better!

Aug 19
Initial estimations for the passage of the HTV-5 about 10 minutes ahead of the ISS on Wednesday, August 19th. Image credit: Orbitron

Here’s a sampling of ISS passes for Washington D.C. for the next few days:

Wednesday, August 19th: 8:46 PM EDT (Elevation 65 degrees NE)

Thursday, August 20th: 9:29 PM EDT (Elevation 23 degrees SW)

Friday, August 21st: 8:35 PM EDT (Elevation 48 degrees SW)

Clouded out? You can still watch the grapple and berthing action online courtesy of NASA TV.

Want more? Other orbital alumni that have placed a port of call at humanity’s orbital outpost include: SpaceX’s Dragon, the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet (excepting the Columbia orbiter), Progress, ATV, HTV, Soyuz, and Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft. And while the shuttle and the European Space Agency’s ATV fleet are retired, you can follow the next launch of a crewed Soyuz (TMA-18M) on September 2nd from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a four-orbit fast-track docking.

JAXA plans to launch one HTV a year, out to HTV-9 in 2019.

Good luck, and good sat-spotting… next time we park the Jeep Liberty in the garage, we’re going to refer to it as a ‘grapple and berthing…’ it just sounds cool.

Got a picture of the International Space Station and friends? Be sure to send ‘em in to Universe Today.

Japan Successfully Launches Hayabusa 2 Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Japan successfully launched their Hayabusa-2 sample return mission to asteroid 1999 JU3, and JAXA reports the spacecraft is on course and in excellent shape, with its solar panels deployed. The H-IIA F26 rocket carrying the craft blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwest Japan at 1:22:04 p.m. local time on Dec 3, 2014 (04:22 UTC) , and about two hours later, the spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered its initial planned trajectory.

Hayabusa 2 has been communicating with JAXA mission control as it starts off on its journey to land on an asteroid in 2018 and retrieve rock and dust samples to be returned to Earth in late 2020.

The first Hayabusa spacecraft completed a successful — albeit nail-biting — mission to the asteroid Itokawa, returning samples to Earth in 2010 after first reaching the asteroid in 2005. The mission almost failed as the spacecraft was plagued by technical problems and it wasn’t certain if the mechanism used to capture the samples actually worked. Ultimately, after a circuitous and troubled-filled return trip home, the canister containing microscopic rock samples made a soft landing in Australia, the first time that samples from an asteroid had been brought back to Earth for study.

Hayabusa 2’s target, Asteroid 1999 JU3 is approximately 914 meters (3,000 feet) in diameter, a little larger than Itokawa, and is roughly spherical in shape, while Itokawa had an oblong shape. 1999 JU3 has a rotation period of approximately 7.6 hours.

To avoid a repetition of the glitches experienced by the first Hayabusa spacecraft, JAXA made several changes. Hayabusa 2 has an updated ion propulsion engine as well as improved guidance and navigation systems, new antennas and a new altitude control system.

Hayabusa 2 has a mini rover called Minerva 2, and for Hayabusa 2’s sample-collecting activities, a slowly descending impactor will be used, detonating upon contact with the surface instead of the high-speed projectile used by the first Hayabusa.

This video explains the Hayabusa 2 mission and how it differs from the first Hayabusa spacecraft:

JAXA’s Hayabusa website will provide current updates to the mission.