Space probe enthralls Japan as it heads home
Japan is couning down to the homecoming of a space hero next week:
not an astronaut but a battered machine limping back from a seven-year
odyssey to a distant space rock.
It is hoped the small probe Hayabusa ("Falcon") may have beaten
bigger US and European projects to become the first spacecraft to bring
home raw material from an asteroid, part of the primeval rubble left
over from the making of the solar system.
Japan’s space probe “Hayabusa” (Falcon) and an asteroid, Itokawa
in the space. AFP
Hayabusa, which cost 12.7 billion yen (138 million dollars) to
develop, is approaching the end of a five-billion-kilometre
(three-billion-mile) trek with broken engines, failed posture-adjusting
devices and disfunctional batteries.
The spacecraft is due to release a canister expected to contain
asteroid dust as it approaches Earth, aiming to land it at the Woomera
Test Range in the Australian outback on June 13 - if all goes well.
Hayabusa itself will be incinerated as it smashes into the
atmosphere, prompting devout fans to declare that the falcon will be
reborn as a "Phoenix" - a mythical firebird.
The journey has captured the public imagination, with a
computer-graphics movie "Hayabusa back to the Earth" drawing some
150,000 people at planetariums across the nation and proposals that the
spacecraft be given a National Honour Award.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), on a special website
(http://hayabusa.jaxa.jp/), has received nearly 1,000 messages treating
the probe as a human boy and cheering him on in the lonely, difficult
"What's special to Hayabusa is it has enthusiastic fans. I believe
ordinary people love it because it tried what is unprecedented," JAXA
associate professor Makoto Yoshikawa, told AFP.
The car-size probe with solar paddles has already become the world's
first spacecraft to land on and lift off a celestial body other than the
moon after it made a rendezvous with the potato-shaped asteroid Itokawa.
Launched on May 9 2003, Hayabusa approached the 540-metre-wide
(1,782-foot) asteroid in September 2005.
The probe made a pinpoint landing at a smooth spot on the bumpy,
revolving asteroid, which is 300 million kilometres away from Earth -
about twice as far as the sun.
Hayabusa left on Itokawa a metal ball wrapped in a thin plastic film
that bears the names of 880,000 people from 149 countries, among them US
filmmaker Steven Spielberg and British science fiction author Arthur C.
Clarke. All had responded to JAXA's public invitation to be listed.
The moon and planets like Mars pull a spacecraft in once it gets
close to them, but Hayabusa needed to land in near zero gravity.
The task was difficult, Yoshikawa said. "It was like putting up a
needle on the top of Mount Fuji and firing a grain of sand through its
hole," he said in Sagamihara, west of Tokyo, where ground control is
Scientists expect Hayabusa managed to collect dust that floated up
when the probe bounced on Itokawa, although data show the probe failed
to fire a bullet as planned to crush the surface or raise a curl of
They hope raw samples, unlike scorched remains such as meteorites,
will give them clues on how the solar system has developed.
The United States and Europe have both launched big projects to
analyse primitive phenomena.
They include Rosetta, a one-billion-euro (1.2-billion-dollar) mission
by the European Space Agency due to climax in 2014, which aims to deploy
a robot lab on a comet, analyse its soil and transmit the data back
In its 2005 Deep Impact mission, the United States smashed a metal
mass into a comet to analyse the gas and dust spewed out by the impact.
Another US craft, Stardust, returned in 2006 with material scooped up by
flying through the wake of a comet.
Scientists say Hayabusa did a great job even if it turns out there is
nothing in the sampling capsule, as the spacecraft took pictures and
analysed the density, composition of surface elements and other features
of the asteroid by using infrared and X-rays.
Hayabusa was hit by a series of technical troubles. It went out of
control because of fuel leakage in December 2005 and then lost
communication with Earth for seven weeks to January 2006.
When ground control restored communication it was too late for
Hayabusa to enter the planned orbit for its return. It needed to wait
for three years until the positions of the Earth and Itokawa became
As ground engineers patched up damaged functions to control Hayabusa,
the probe left the asteroid for Earth in April 2007.
It is currently flying on a combination of two partially broken ion
engines, with one compensating for the other's disfunctional operation.
"It was an adventure, indeed," Yoshikawa said.