Confirmed: Hayabusa Nabbed Asteroid Particles


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has confirmed that the tiny particles inside the Hayabusa spacecraft’s sample return container are in fact from the asteroid Itokawa. Scientists examined the particles to determine if the probe successfully captured and brought back anything from the asteroid, and in a press release said “about 1,500 grains were identified as rocky particles, and most were determined to be of extraterrestrial origin, and definitely from Asteroid Itokawa.”

These are the first samples from an asteroid ever returned to Earth; the only other extraterrestrial samples brought back to Earth came from the Apollo missions to the Moon. See correction, below.

Previously, JAXA said that although particles were inside the container, it wasn’t clear if they were from the asteroid or if they could be of terrestrial origin (dust from Earth that could have been inside the container).

The particles samples were collected from the chamber by a specially shaped Teflon spatula and examined with a scanning electron microscope. There were two chambers inside the container, and from the press release (in Japanese) it appears all the particles were found in one chamber, Chamber A.

Most of the particles are extremely small, about 10 microns in size and require special handling and equipment. Unfortunately they aren’t the “peanut-sized” chunks of rock that the mission originally hoped to capture. This will make analyzing the particles difficult, but not impossible.

Hayabusa's sample return cannister and parachute on the ground in the Australian outback. Credit: JAXA

During the seven-year round trip journey, Hayabusa arrived at Itokawa in November, 2005. The mechanism that was intended to capture the samples apparently failed, but scientists were hopeful that at least some dust had made its way into the return canister. After a circuitous and troubled-filled return trip home, the sample return capsule was ejected and landed in Australia in June of this year.

Here are the other successful sample return missions:
Apollo Moon missions (1969-1972)
Soviet Union’s Luna 16 (1970) returned 101 grams of lunar soil
Luna 20 (1974) returned 30 grams
Luna 24 (1976) returned 170.1 grams.
The Orbital Debris Collection (ODC) experiment, deployed on the Mir space station for 18 months during 1996–1997, used aerogel to capture interplanetary dust particles in orbit.
Genesis (2001-2004) captured and returned molecules collected from the solar wind. It crashed in the Utah desert, but samples were able to be retreived.
Stardust (1999-2006) collected particles from the tail of a comet, as well as a few interstellar dust grains.

Source: JAXA

JAXA: Hayabusa Capsule Contains Particles, Maybe of Asteroid

Artist concept of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which visited asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned samples to Earth in 2010. Credit: JAXA


At a press conference yesterday, officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that they had “scraped up” a hundred or so particles of dust, perhaps grains of dust from the asteroid, Itokawa, inside the sample return capsule of the Hayabusa spacecraft. This is great news, as previous reports from JAXA indicated they weren’t sure if there were any particles at all inside the container. Originally, the mission had hoped to bring back “peanut-sized” asteroid samples, but the device that was supposed to fire pellets at the asteroid may not have worked, and for a time, scientists were even unsure if the spacecraft had even touched down on the asteroid.

During the seven-year round trip journey, Hayabusa arrived at Itokawa in November, 2005. After a circuitous and troubled-filled return trip home, the sample return capsule was ejected and landed in Australia in June of this year.

The 100 or so grains reported yesterday are extremely tiny, and the micron-sized particles were scraped off the sides of container and are now being examined with an electron microscope. They don’t appear to be metallic, so are not fragments from the container, but they don’t have absolute proof yet that the particles are from the asteroid.

Soon, the grains will be examined using particle accelerator/synchrotron. Additionally, some reports indicated there is another yet unopened compartment that will be examined soon.

A little surfing of the net (in all languages) reveals there are tons of news articles out there reporting this. The only problem is that some of these news reports called the potential asteroid particles “extraterrestrial,” which then became translated as “extraterrestrial life” in the next article in another language. Ah, the wonders of the internet!

We’ll keep you posted!

JAXA Delays Releasing Details of Hayabusa Sample Return


No news yet if there are specks of asteroid dust in the Haybusa sample return container. JAXA has decided to postpone releasing any information, including publishing a detailed analysis of the particles that may have been collected. According to The Japan Times, JAXA said it is taking more time than originally expected to collect the particles because they are smaller than it was assumed they’d be. This provides some hope, however, that there is actually something of interest in the container.

Originally, JAXA had hoped to publish a report by September, but now it’s looking like December or later.

JAXA said it is going to take several hours to collect just one particle, which likely measures just a few thousandths of a millimeter in diameter. Munetaka Ueno, a senior JAXA official, said the agency wants to analyze the particles with extreme care because repeating the process will be difficult.

The original plan was for JAXA to remove the particles and then let researchers across the country for a more detailed analysis.

We waited seven years for Haybusa to fly to and then return home from asteroid Itokawa, so we should be able to wait a couple more months. Here’s hoping the particle extraction doesn’t encounter as many problems as the spacecraft had.

Source: The Japan Times

Hayabusa Sample Return Canister Opened, Contains Material


The sample return canister from the Hayabusa spacecraft has been opened, and does contain a small amount of dust particles, according to the JAXA website. This is very encouraging news! However, it is not yet known if the dust is from the asteroid Itokawa, where Hayabusa briefly touched down, or if it could be from Earth — left in the container from before launch, or it possibly could have made its way in there during the landing/post landing handling. “Material on the planet or asteroid or particulate matter is at this stage is unknown, we will consider in detail,” is the Google translate version of the JAXA press release. According to Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society, the dust grains are extremely small, about 0.01-millimeter in size, and there are about a dozen of them inside the container. This image was taken on June 28, 2010, and below is a magnified view of one of the particles.

Magnified view of a dust particle in the Hayabusa canister. Credit: JAXA

This magnified view was taken on June 29, and shows a magnified view of one very small particle being picked up by a quartz manipulator, which appears as a stripe on the image.
It likely will take several weeks to confirm whether the particles are from the asteroid, but if so, would be the first-ever asteroid sample return.

Below is an image of Earth that Hayabusa took as it approached the home planet.

Earth seen by the returning Hayabusa. Credit: JAXA

Sources: JAXA, The Planetary Society, BBC

Subaru Telescope Takes Montage of Hayabusa’s Return to Earth


The world watched and waited for the Hayabusa spacecraft to make its return to Earth on June 13, 2010 and the people of Japan — who built and launched the little spacecraft that could (and did!) — were especially hopeful in watching and waiting. Japan’s Subaru Telescope (although located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii) turned its expectant eyes towards Hayabusa and captured the spacecraft’s flight between the Moon and Earth in 11 different images.

A note from the Subaru Telescope team:

During the busy time preparing the observations, Doctor Masafumi Yagi and his team managed to maneuver the telescope just in time to catch Hayabusa before it disappeared down south in the twilight sky. At that time, Hayabusa was a little less than half way between Moon and Earth. Five seconds exposures, each spaced by 35 – 50 seconds in the V filter with Suprime Cam, it showed up in clear trace at the position expected to be. Brightness is estimated to be only 21 magnitudes. At this level, one can see a background galaxy clearly.

We are waiting to hear more from the project team at ISAS/JAXA. In the meantime, congratulations to all who are involved in this unprecedented endeavor.

A GIF animation of the 11 images is available here — but be warned, the file is huge. You can click on the top image for a full-sized huge-ified image, too.

And here are some images of the recovery teams who picked up the sample return canister in the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia. The canister will be taken to Japan and opened in a few weeks, or perhaps months, after rigorous testing. Only then will we find out if any asteroid samples made it in the canister for the ride back to Earth.

Recovery team makes sure all is safe with the sample return canister. Credit: JAXA
The recovery team handles the heat sheild for the Hayabusa sample return capsule. Credit: JAXA, Hayabusa Twitter feed.
JAXA's Hayabusa space capsule is transported inside a box to a clean room inside the Instrumentation Building at the Woomera Test Range, South Australia. Credit: Australian Science Media Centre

You can see more images of the canister retrieval at the Hayabusa Twitpic page and the Australian Science Media Centre’s Flickr page

Source: Subaru

Hayabusa Sample Return Capsule Retrieved


Scientists from Japan were given the go-ahead to retrieve the sample return capsule from the Hayabusa spacecraft, which is hoped to contain the first piece of asteroid ever brought to Earth, perhaps providing insight into the origins of asteroids – and our universe. The capsule was ejected three hours before reaching Earth, and the sample canister descended through Earth’s atmosphere, preceding the spacecraft which broke up in spectacular fashion (click here to see the video) over the Australian Outback. The capsule lay in the Woomera Prohibited Area until morning when Aboriginal elders deemed it had not landed in any indigenous sacred sites, giving the OK for the scientists to retrieve it.

The insulated and cushioned re-entry capsule, 40 cm in diameter and 25 cm deep has a mass of about 20 kg. The capsule had a convex nose covered with a 3 cm thick ablative heat shield to protect the samples from the high velocity (~13 km/s) re-entry.

Apparently, it landed right on target. The director of the Woomera test range, Doug Gerrie, said the probe had completed a textbook landing in the South Australian desert. “They landed it exactly where they nominated they would.

Hayabusa's heat shield was also recovered from the Australian outback. Credit: JAXA

The capsule will remain sealed until it arrives at the JAXA facility near Tokyo, and may remain unopened for weeks as it undergoes testing.

The mission launched in 2003, and endured a series of technical glitches over its five-billion-kilometer (three-billion-mile) journey to the asteroid Itokawa and back. A large solar flare in late 2003 “injured” the solar panels, providing less power to Hayabusa’s ion engines, delaying the rendezvous with the asteroid. Then, as the spacecraft approached Itokawa, Hayabusa lost the use of its Y-axis reaction wheel. While it flew near the asteroid and sent back data, scientists and engineers aren’t sure if the spacecraft was successful in obtaining samples, as while it appears Hayabusa landed briefly, it is not certain the “bullets” fired to stir up dust for the container to capture. The return to Earth was delayed by three years from more thruster and navigational failures, but the JAXA team nursed and coaxed the spacecraft back home to a spectacular return. There was concern that the parachute batteries may be been depleted due to the extra time it took to get back to Earth, but obviously they worked quite well.

Sources: JAXA, NASA, AFP

Hayabusa Returns!

Japan’s little spacecraft that could returned to Earth, putting on quite a show over the Australian outback, making a fiery reentry. Hayabusa returned around 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) in the Woomera Prohibited Area of South Australia. In the video you’ll see a little speck of light ahead of the falling debris: that’s the sample return canister with, hopefully, some precious goods aboard – samples from asteroid Itokawa. The canister separated about three hours before reaching Earth, and returned to Earth via parachute. The canister has been recovered, and will be taken to Japan where scientists will open it to find out if there is anything inside.

The return was monitored scientists from around the world, including a NASA crew on aboard a DC-8 airplane who took the video footage.
Continue reading “Hayabusa Returns!”

Hayabusa on the Homestretch on Return to Earth

After overcoming multiple serious glitches, and a three-year delay in its four billion miles (six billion kilometers) round-trip journey, JAXA’s Hayabusa spacecraft is expected to land in Australia around 14:00 UTC on Sunday, June 13; (midnight local time in Australia, 11 pm in Japan and 11:00 a.m. ET in the US). Scientists and space enthusiasts alike are hoping there is some precious cargo aboard in the sample return capsule: dust from an asteroid.

The latest word from JAXA, as of this writing, is that all systems were doing well on Hayabusa. The teams assessed the trajectory of Hayabusa and confirmed that everything was nominal.

If all goes well, Hayabusa will release a canister that will land in the Woomera Prohibited Area in the outback of South Australia; Hayabusa itself will follow, putting on a show over Australia as it breaks up and incinerates in Earth’s atmosphere.

You can follow the landing in several ways. A NASA team will be attempting to observe the re-entry of Hayabusa in a DC-8 plane, and they hope to have a webcast at this link.

There will be a “Hayabusa Live” website and a Hayabusa blog will be updated frequently, plus this Hayabusa Twitter feed.

Here’s a link to a finder chart and more from Paul Floyd at his website, Night Sky Online.

The Hayabusa spacecraft, formerly known as MUSES-C launched on May 9, 2003 and rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in mid-September 2005. Hayabusa studied the asteroid’s shape, spin, topography, color, composition, density, and history. Then in November 2005, it attempted to land on the asteroid to collect samples but failed to do so. However, it is hoped that some dust swirled into the sampling chamber. You can listen to Universe Today writer Steve Nerlich (from Cheap Astronomy) tell the story of Hayabusa’s trials and tribulations on this 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

The aim of the $200 million Hayabusa project was to learn more about asteroids and to help in our understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system.

If Hayabusa is indeed carrying samples from the asteroid, it would be only the fourth sample return of space material in history — including the moon matter collected by the Apollo missions, comet matter by Stardust and solar matter in the Genesis mission.

We’re all hoping for the best for this first sample return from an asteroid, and it should be an interesting time in Australia. Dozens of scientists will be watching and waiting to see the return.

A view of Woomera from the Ghan train. Credit: Col Maybury

Plus, as Col Maybury from radio station 2NUR in Australia tells me, all traffic around the area will be stopped, including the Ghan train, one of the world’s great trains that travels from south to north across the continent of Australia, and it happens to be passing through Woomera right at the time Hayabusa should be returning. Col said he called the train company, and was told that the train engineers are to keep a look out for the entry trail.

“So a mighty train named after Afghan camel drivers may have to halt for a small spacecraft or be hit by a flying object,” Col wrote me in an email. He will have a live report on Radio 2NUR-FM on Tuesday the 15th at 10:20 am in Newcastle, 12:20 GMT, talking with the Woomera officials for a follow-up of the Hayabusa event.

Preliminary analysis of the samples will be carried out by the team in Japan, but after one year scientists around the world can apply for access to bits of the asteroid material for research.

Hayabusa May Come Home After All

Artist concept of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which visited asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned samples to Earth in 2010. Credit: JAXA


As we reported last week, it seemed as if the Hayabusa asteroid explorer mission was dealt a fatal blow when the third of its four ion engines failed. But the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced yesterday that it may have come up with a solution to that problem to get Hayabusa back home by using components from two different inoperable thrusters in combination.

The Hayabusa mission has been rather plagued with problems throughout the entire mission. Its goal was to land on the asteroid Itokawa and return a sample to the Earth. It orbited the asteroid for three months in late 2005, and took near-infrared and X-ray spectral data. The landing, unfortunately, may or may not have gathered up a sample of the asteroid – though the container that the sample was supposed to go into may contain dust kicked up by the landing.

After taking off from the asteroid, communication was temporarily lost with the craft.  Communication was re-established with the craft, but the ion thrusters that propel it began to have problems, and as we reported last week, 3 of the 4 thrusters on Hayabusa were no longer operational. Thruster D, which has been the sole source of propulsion for the craft since February 2009, gave out due to a voltage spike. The remaining thruster, C, was shut down to avoid damage. Things were starting to look pretty grim for a mission that has overcome a lot of problems so far.

In an announcement made by JAXA yesterday, a solution has been proposed to use part of two different thrusters in combination to propel the craft. Ion engines work ionizing a neutral gas – in Hayabusa’s case, xenon – and forcing them out of an electrified grid on the back of the craft. When this is done, though, there is a negative charge imbalance in the craft which would attract the ions right back into the engines. To compensate, a neutralizer ejects electrons into the ionized gas that has been released, so that they don’t come back into the craft and the charge of the craft remains neutral.A diagram of how thrusters A and B will be joined to act as one thruster. Image Credit:JAXA

To fix the current problem, the JAXA engineers have proposed using the ion propellant from thruster B and the neutralizer from thruster A, effectively combining them into one complete thruster. Thruster A was deemed “unstable” after launch, and remains unused.

Thruster C will remain shut off, and only be used in case of failure of this rigged-up system. Its neutralizer is operating poorly, and given that the cause of failure for thrusters B and D was due to a neutrializer problem, the mission engineers want to be cautious.

Combining the engines will consume twice as much fuel and power as they would consume alone, but Hayabusa apparently has plenty of both in spades. 5 kg of fuel will be required to gain 200 meters per second acceleration over 2000 hours, but Hayabusa still has 20 kilograms of fuel in reserve. This system wasn’t tested on the ground, but apparently has worked in space for over one week (180 hours).

This thrusting combination will continue to propel the craft (barring further problems) until March 2010. If any other problems crop up, though, the team will have to delay the return of Hayabusa until 2013. If you want to see a cool – though somewhat cheesy – video of the Hayabusa mission so far, there’s a 30 minute one available on the mission site here.

Source: JAXA, The Planetary Society Blog

Hard-Luck Hayabusa In More Trouble

Artist concept of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which visited asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned samples to Earth in 2010. Credit: JAXA

A problem-plagued Japanese mission to an asteroid just may have received its final blow. The Haybusa mission, which went to asteroid Itokawa in 2005 is currently trying to return to Earth, but now has suffered a breakdown in the third out of four ion thrusters. The cause was a voltage spike due to problems with a neutralization vessel, which previously caused the failure of two other thrusters. The fourth and only remaining thruster was shutdown earlier by engineers after signs that it also might succumb to high voltage damage. Engineers are now testing that engine, Thruster C, to determine if it is capable of long-duration firings. Hayabusa, which landed on Itokawa (possibly several times – mission managers aren’t sure) might contain samples, but due to a malfunction of the sample collection device, JAXA has acknowledged that it cannot be sure Hayabusa actually managed to take samples from the surface of the asteroid.

Thruster D failed last Wednesday, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Hayabusa’s four experimental microwave discharge ion engines consume xenon gas and expel the ionized propellant at high speeds to produce thrust. Ion engines are more efficient than conventional chemical thrusters because they use less fuel and can operate continuously for thousands of hours. Hayabusa’s thrusters have accumulated almost 40,000 hours of burn time since the probe launched in May 2003.

The spacecraft was originally scheduled to return to Earth in 2007, but the arrival date was pushed back to 2010 following thruster, communications, gyro and fuel-leak problems.

Thruster D had been the lone engine guiding the spacecraft since February 2009. Officials now say they are evaluating the asteroid mission’s return course after last week’s glitch, and will try to re-fire Thruster C in order to obtain the trajectory and speed required for the return to Earth.

Hayabusa spent three months exploring Itokawa in late 2005, taking over 1,600 pictures and collecting near-infrared and X-ray spectral data to investigate the small potato-shaped asteroid’s surface composition.

During a failed sampling attempt in November 2005, Hayabusa made an unplanned landing and spent up to a half-hour on Itokawa, becoming the first spacecraft to take off from an asteroid. The spacecraft attempted to fire a pellet into the asteroid’s surface and retrieve rock samples through a funnel leading to a collection chamber. However, telemetry showed Hayabusa likely did not fire its projectile while on the surface; but scientists were hopeful bits of dust or pebbles found their way through the funnel and into the sample retrieval system.

Source: Spaceflightnow