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Saturday, 12 June 2010 00:16

JAXA asteroid collector mission almost home


The Hayabusa spacecraft, which traveled to the asteroid Itokawa, is expected to land in Australia on Sunday, June 13, 2010. The Japanese space agency is hoping it will return a valuable collection of data and actual samples from the asteroid.


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Japan's equivalent to NASA in the United States, is readying itself for the end of the seven-year mission of its Hayabusa spacecraft.

On Sunday, June 13, 2010, the Hayabusa will re-enter Earth's atmosphere after a two-year flight to the asteroid Itokawa, a one-year mission at the asteroid, and a four-year journey back home to Earth.

The small near-Earth asteroid, named 25143 Itokawa, is about 540 meters by 270 meters by 210 meters in volume. The asteroid is named after Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.

It is classified as an Apollo asteroid and a Mars-crosser asteroid. An Apollo asteroid is one of a group of near-Earth asteroids named after 1862 Apollo, the first asteroid to be discovered within this group.

A Mars-crosser asteroid is, as its name indicates, an asteroid that crosses the orbit of the planet Mars.

The spacecraft, previously called MUSES-C (Mu Space Engineering Spacecraft C), was launched on May 9, 2003. It rendezvoused with the asteroid in September 2005, making a detailed study of its shape, topography, color, spin, density, and other physical features.

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On November 19, 2005, it landed on the asteroid and attempted to collects samples from the rocky body. However, it failed to collect such samples.

However, scientists are confident that dust entered the sampling chamber when the spacecraft made contact with the body, and are hopeful that when they open the chamber dust particles from the asteroid will be present.

During the mission the spacecraft found that Itokawa may have formed from two or more smaller asteroids that came together because of their gravitational fields'”what is called a contact binary asteroid.

The mission also found that the asteroid has only a small number of impact craters, but it is full of boulders in a very rough surface.

Many organizations are eagerly awaiting the return of the spacecraft. One of the organizations participating in the final leg of the Hayabusa mission is the U.S. space agency NASA.

NASA will be on hand for the descent and landing in Australia.

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The U.S. space agency sent thirty NASA scientists to Australia in order to track the spacecraft as it fires its ion engine (which was done on June 9, 2010, for about 2.5 hours) while approaching Earth (for one last maneuver [TCM-4]  to correct its position for a safe and successful entry into Earth's atmosphere and into the Woomera Prohibited Area of Australia).

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), about 127,000 square kilometers in area, is a weapons-testing range in central South Australia. It is north by northwest of Adelaide, with its southeastern corner about 280 miles (450 kilometers) from the city.

The scientists, onboard a specially modified aircraft, will then track the spacecraft as it descends through Earth's atmosphere, opens its parachute, and lands into Australia's WPA.

The NASA scientists will see the spacecraft descend through Earth's atmosphere at about 7.58 miles per second. Because of such speed, the heat shield on the spacecraft will reach temperatures of over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 degrees Celsius).

At that speed, the spacecraft will become the second-fastest human-made object to ever re-enter Earth's atmosphere. The Stardust spacecraft, back in January 2006, reentered the atmosphere at a faster 7.95 miles per second, and is expected to maintain its fastest-reentry-speed-for-any-returning vehicle.

The envelop of gas around the spacecraft will reach even hotter temperatures'”going up to 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit (7,200 degrees Celsius).

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Ground controllers with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be providing ground control and tracking for the spacecraft, using optical and radio beacons to track the incoming craft in the air and while on the ground.

The landing will be more of a quasi-controlled sudden impact onto Earth's surface. The capsule will impact first, cushioning the asteroid sample, which is about 6,500 feet behind it.

Overall, scientists hope to learn more about the nature of asteroids based on the pristine materials returned from the mission.




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