NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Captures Lovely Blue Marble during Gravity Assist Swing-by to Asteroid Bennu

A color composite image of Earth taken on Sept. 22, 2017 by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth Gravity Assist at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission captured a lovely ‘Blue Marble’ image of our Home Planet during last Fridays (Sept. 22) successful gravity assist swing-by sending the probe hurtling towards asteroid Bennu for a rendezvous next August on a round trip journey to snatch pristine soil samples.

The newly released color composite image of Earth was taken on Sept. 22 by the spacecrafts MapCam camera.

It was taken at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers), just a few hours after OSIRIS-REx completed its critical Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

“NASA’s asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth’s gravity on Friday, Sept. 22 to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August,” the agency confirmed after receiving the eagerly awaited telemetry.

OSIRIS-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission.

As it swung by Earth at 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sept. 22, OSIRIS-REx passed only 10,711 miles (17,237 km) above Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile.

The probe departed Earth by following a flight path that continued north over the Pacific Ocean and has already travelled 600 million miles (1 billion kilometers) since launching on Sept. 8, 2016.

OSIRIS-REx flight path over Earth’s surface during the Sept. 22, 2017 slingshot over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT targeting the probe to Asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

The preplanned EGA maneuver provided the absolutely essential gravity assisted speed boost required for OSIRIS-Rex to gain enough velocity to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

The mission was only made possible by the slingshot which provided a velocity change to the spacecraft of 8,451 miles per hour (3.778 kilometers per second).

“The encounter with Earth is fundamental to our rendezvous with Bennu,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system, so we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”

The spacecraft conducted a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon that began four hours after closest approach in order to test and calibrate its onboard suite of five science instruments and help prepare them for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OTES spectrometer captured these infrared spectral curves during Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22 2017, hours after the spacecraft’s closest approach. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Arizona State University

The MapCam camera Blue Marble image is the first one to be released by NASA and the science team.

The image is centered on the Pacific Ocean and shows several familiar landmasses, including Australia in the lower left, and Baja California and the southwestern United States in the upper right.

“The dark vertical streaks at the top of the image are caused by short exposure times (less than three milliseconds),” said the team.

“Short exposure times are required for imaging an object as bright as Earth, but are not anticipated for an object as dark as the asteroid Bennu, which the camera was designed to image.”

The instrument will gather additional data and measurements scanning the Earth and the Moon for three more days over the next two weeks.

“The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch and flyby went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OVIRS spectrometer captured this visible and infrared spectral curve, which shows the amount of sunlight reflected from the Earth, after the spacecraft’s Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22, 2017. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampling Probe Completes Instrument Install/Assembly, Enters ‘Test Drive’ Phase

OSIRIS-Rex, the first American spacecraft ever aimed at snatching pristine samples from the surface of an asteroid and returning them to Earth for exquisite analysis by researchers world-wide with the most advanced science instruments has successfully completed its assembly phase and moved into the “test drive” phase – just ten months before blastoff, following installation of all its science instruments at Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities, near Denver, Colorado.

The launch window for OSIRIS-REx opens next fall on September 3, 2016 on a seven-year journey to asteroid Bennu and back. Bennu is a carbon-rich asteroid. OSIRIS-Rex will eventually return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

The science payload installation was recently completed with attachment of the vehicles three camera instrument suite of cameras and spectrometers known as OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite), which was was designed and built by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

OCAMS trio of instruments, PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam, will survey and globally map the surface of Bennu up close at a distance ranging from approximately 5 km to 0.7 km.

“PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam will be our mission’s eyes at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a statement.

“OCAMS will provide the imagery we need to complete our mission while the spacecraft is at the asteroid.”

“All in all it was flawless installation, with the three cameras and the control electronics making it on the spacecraft well in advance of when we originally planned these activities. In general, the OSIRIS-REx ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) flow has gone smoothly,” said Lauretta in a blog update.

The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft.  Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts
The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts

For the next five months, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer will undergo a rigorous regime of critical environmental testing to ensure the probe will survive the unforgiving extremes of vacuum, vibration and extreme temperatures it will experience during launch and throughout the life of its planned eight year mission.

The asteroid sampling spacecraft is tracking on budget and ahead of schedule.

“OSIRIS-REx is entering environmental testing on schedule, on budget and with schedule reserves,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“This allows us to have flexibility if any concerns arise during final launch preparations.”

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter wide asteroid.

The instruments were all installed as planned on the spacecraft deck over the past few months so they can all be subjected to the environmental testing together with the spacecraft bus.

“This milestone marks the end of the design and assembly stage,” said Lauretta, in a statement.

“We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back. This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.”

The tests will “simulate the harsh environment of space, including acoustical, separation and deployment shock, vibration, and electromagnetic interference. The simulation concludes with a test in which the spacecraft and its instruments are placed in a vacuum chamber and cycled through the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will face during its journey to Bennu,” say NASA officials.

Video caption: Engineers at Lockheed Martin move the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft onto a rotation fixture. This fixture supports the full weight of the spacecraft and acts as a hinge, orienting the spacecraft at a 90 degree angle, which allows engineers to access the top of the spacecraft much more easily. Credits: Lockheed Martin Corporation

The testing is done to uncover any issues lurking prior next September’s planned liftoff.

“This is an exciting time for the program as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to asteroid Bennu,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“The environmental test phase is an important time in the mission as it will reveal any issues with the spacecraft and instruments, while here on Earth, before we send it into deep space.”

After the testing is complete by next May, the spacecraft will ship from Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where it will undergo final prelaunch preparations and transport to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard
Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth.
Credit: NASA/Goddard

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.

“This is an exciting time,” says Lauretta.

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018. OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

OSIRIS-REx logo
OSIRIS-REx logo

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

Ken Kremer

Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline

[/caption]

Barely in the nick of time, Russia’s groundbreaking Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft to Mars finally arrived on Monday (Oct. 17) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan – and today (Oct. 18) an eye-popping collection of great images (see below) was at last published by Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

This first-of-its-kind spaceship is due to blast off quite soon – sometime in the first half of November – although Roskosmos has yet to announce an official launch date and time is running out. The deadline to Mars is Nov. 25.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The explicit close-up photos show both the Phobos-Grunt orbiter/lander vehicle and her companion Yinghou-1 Mars orbiter, built by China, being uncrated from a huge shipping container, uprighted and then showcased from many revealing angles from top to bottom, tilted from side to side and looking inside her hardware stack.

The photos illustrate the solar panels, landing legs, J-shaped soil sampling tube, Earth return vehicle and descent capsule, star trackers, communications antennae, maneuvering thrusters and more.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The Yinghou-1 mini-satellite is clearly visible tucked inside a truss situated between the Phobos-Grunt landing ship and the MDU propulsion stage.

Phobos-Grunt was just air shipped from Moscow to Baikonur inside an Antonov An-124-100 “Ruslan” cargo plane operated by “Polyot” airline.

The cargo canister was offloaded and transported by truck to Facility 31. The spacecraft was then placed on a test stand to begin an intense period of final prelaunch payload processing activites to ready the probe for launch.

The Zenit-2SB booster rocket also recently arrived at Baikonur for ongoing prelaunch processing at nearby Building 42.

Chinese Yinghou-1 mini-satellite tucked truss at right, situated below the Phobos-Grunt lander at left. Credit: Roskosmos.

Russia’s engineers and technicians will have to work diligently in the few weeks remaining in order to complete all preflight activities to achieve a liftoff to the Red Planet before the unforgiving and narrow launch window closes for another 26 months.

Phobos-Grunt Earth return spacecraft. Close-up view of solar panels, Earth descent capsule and soil sample transfer tube. Credit: Roskosmos.
Phobos-Grunt sample collecting and sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Earth is actually lofting two exciting science missions to Mars this November. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is due to blastoff on Nov. 25 and her launch window extends until Dec. 18. Both spaceships missed their initially targeted launch windows in 2009 due to the need to fix unresolved technical issues.

Phobos-Grunt is a daring sample return mission whose goal is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from the tiny Martian moon Phobos, that will help elucidate the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Side view of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 orbiter (bottom) attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing Mars features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster

[/caption]

Russia is marking the upcoming blastoff of their dauntingly complex Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos with the release of a quite cool looking mission poster – see above. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil and is due to liftoff on or about November 7, 2011 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Zenit rocket.

The holy grail of Mars exploration has long been a sample return mission. But with severe cutbacks to NASA’s budget that goal is realistically more than a decade away. That’s why Phobos- Grunt is so exciting from a scientific standpoint.

Phobos-Grunt Orbiter/Lander
Russia's Phobos-Grunt is designed to land on Mars' moon Phobos, collect soil samples and return them to Earth for study. The lander will also carry scientific instrumetns to study Phobos and its environment. It will travel to Mars together with Yinghuo-1, China's first mission to the Red Planet. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Phobos-Grunt Robotic sampling arm. Credit: Roskosmos

If successful, this audacious probe will retrieve about 200 grams of soil from the diminutive moon Phobos and accomplish the round trip in three years time by August 2014. Scientists speculate that martian dust may coat portions of Phobos and could possibly be mixed in with any returned samples.

Included here are more photos and graphics of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft which is equipped with two robotic arms and a sampling device to transfer regolith and rocks to the Earth return vehicle and an on board array of some 15 science instruments, including lasers, spectrometers, cameras and a microscope. Readers please feel free to help with Russian translations.

Phobos-Grunt Model
This is a full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt. The spacecraft will collect samples of soil on Mar's moon Phobos and to bring the samples back to Earth for detailed study. Credit: CNES

Phobos-Grunt is the first of Earth’s two missions launching to the Red Planet in 2011. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory is due to lift off on Nov. 25, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater

Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

[/caption]

In just over 3 weeks’ time, Russia plans to launch a bold mission to Mars whose objective, if successful , is to land on the Martian Moon Phobos and return a cargo of precious soil samples back to Earth about three years later.

The purpose is to determine the origin and evolution of Phobos and how that relates to Mars and the evolution of the solar system.

Liftoff of the Phobos-Grunt space probe will end a nearly two decade long hiatus in Russia’s exploration of the Red Planet following the failed Mars 96 mission and is currently scheduled to head to space just weeks prior to this year’s other Mars mission – namely NASA’s next Mars rover, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt may come as early as around Nov. 5 to Nov. 8 atop a Russian Zenit 3-F rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch window extends until about Nov. 25. Elements of the spacecraft are undergoing final prelaunch testing at Baikonur.

Flight version of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft during assembly in preparation for critical testing in thermal and vacuum chamber at NITs RKP facility closely imitating harsh conditions of the real space flight. Credit: NPO Lovochkin

Baikonur is the same location from which Russian manned Soyuz rockets lift off for the International Space Station. Just like NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the mission was originally intended for a 2009 launch but was prudently delayed to fix a number of technical problems.

“November will see the launch of the Phobos-Grunt interplanetary automatic research station aimed at delivering samples of the Martian natural satellite’s soil to Earth’” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, speaking recently at a session of the State Duma according to the Voice of Russia, a Russian government news agency.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

The spacecraft will reach the vicinity of Mars after an 11 month interplanetary cruise around October 2012. Following several months of orbital science investigations of Mars and its two moons and searching for a safe landing site, Phobos-Grunt will attempt history’s first ever touchdown on Phobos. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the surface of the tiny moon and collect up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a robotic arm and drill.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft prepares for testing inside the vacuum chamber. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

After about a year of surface operations, the loaded return vehicle will blast off from Phobos and arrive back at Earth around August 2014. These would be the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 in 1976.

“The way back will take between nine and 11 months, after which the return capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 12 kilometers per second. The capsule has neither parachute nor radio communication and will break its speed thanks to its conical shape,” said chief spacecraft constructor Maksim Martynov according to a report from the Russia Today news agency. He added that there are two soil collection manipulators on the lander because of uncertainties in the characteristics of Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt was built by NPO Lavochkin and consists of a cruise stage, orbiter/lander, ascent vehicle, and Earth return vehicle.

The spacecraft weighs nearly 12,000 kg and is equipped with a sophisticated 50 kg international science payload, in particular from France and CNES, the French Space Agency.

Also tucked aboard is the Yinghou-1 microsatellite supplied by China. The 110 kg Yinghou-1 is China’s first probe to launch to Mars and will study the Red Planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and surface environment from orbit for about 1 year.

“It will be the first time such research [at Mars] will be done by two spacecraft simultaneously. The research will help understand how the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere happens,” said Professor Lev Zelyony from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, according to Russia Today.

Phobos-Grunt mission scenario. Credit: CNES
Phobos seen by Mars Express. Credit: ESA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

Hayabusa Sample Return Capsule Retrieved

[/caption]

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 on the Homestretch on Return to Earth

[/caption]
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.