Monday, June 14, 2010
Itokawa is a 500 yard long irregularly shaped object orbiting about 180 million miles from Earth. Hayabusa was a Japanese probe launched May 9th, 2003 which made contact with Itokawa in September of 2005. The probe studied the asteroid from a distance of 20 Km until mid November of 2005 when Hayabusa approached the asteroid for a series of soft landings to collect sample material from the objects surface.
It was unclear weather or not Hyabusa's initial landing attempt was successful due to communication issues. But after analyzing the data it was learned that Hayabusa had actually landed on the surface of the asteroid for thirty minutes but had not carried out it's sampling sequence. Several more attempts were made to touch down and take samples from the asteroids surface but it appears as though those attempts were unsuccessful as well. But Given Itokawa's soft loose form it is possible that samples were successfully collected during the probes landings on the asteroids surface.
The mission certainly was not without complication. In 2003 solar flares damaged the probes solar cells while en-route to Itokawa, reducing the efficiency of the spacecraft's Ion engines and delaying it's arrival, thus reducing the time it was able spend at the asteroid. Hayabusa also carried a second small craft MINERVA, which was intended to be released on the surface of Itokawa. But communication errors caused the craft to be released at the wrong altitude and it was lost out into space.
While it is not yet known weather or not the unmanned probe successfully collected any samples, the probe did manage to rendezvous with the asteroid, land on it's surface for a period of half an hour, AND return to Earth as of yesterday June 13th, 2010 after seven years in space.
How unbelievably cool is that?
Additional Links and ContentHere's video of the probes reentry taken by a DC-8 flying over Australia, posted by Youtube user:numpango
And if you'd like to read more and way better coverage of Hyabusa's return check out Emily Lakdawalla's blog which is where I found this still of the probes return taken by:Yomiuri Shimbun.
Image Credit:Yomiuri Shimbun
Hyabusa Returns graphic by: Me
Video posted by Youtube user:numpango