Tokyo - Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission will return to Earth on June 13, 2010. The landing will take place at Australia’s Woomera Prohibited Area around 11:00 pm Local time.
Hayabusa, a unique spacecraft that used a combination of ion and chemical engines, was launched aboard an M-V – 5 booster on May 9, 2003. Following an Earth fly-by in 2004 the spacecraft successfully inserted itself into orbit around asteroid Itokawa on September 12, 2005. Following a series of hovering maneuvers the spacecraft made two descents to the surface of the asteroid in an attempt to collect samples.
The samples were collected using a unique collector that first shot a small projectile into the surface and then sucked up the resulting debris cloud using a vaccumm. Both attempts yielded inconclusive results but worse than that was the fact that during the spacecrafts second ascent a fuel leak caused the spacecraft to spin out of control and damaged its chemical engine leaving Hayabusa stranded in space, in safe mode, and out of communication with Earth.
Through a series of heroic efforts on the part of the Japanese space agency JAXA the spacecraft was eventually brought back under control and communications were re-established. Although the spacecraft was once again under control its chemical engine, which was intended to send the spacecraft back to Earth, had been permanently damaged in the accident leaving Hayabusa stranded in deep space.
Forunatly JAXA engineers were able to come up with a plan to send the crippled spacecraft back to Earth using only it’s ion engines.
On April 25, 2007 the plan was implemented and the spacecraft began it’s three year flight back to Earth. But Hayabusa was not out of the woods yet. In November of 2009 one of the spacecrafts ion engines stopped operating. Another engine had failed early in the flight and a second engine had never been used and controllers were not sure it was in working order. This left Hayabusa (which began the flight with four ion engnes) with only one engine. Fortunately, engineers were able to combine the resources from the two inoperable engines to create one that works. With two engines noe functioning the spacecraft was able to complete it’s limp back to Earth.
The space Licensing and Safety Office (SLASO) has issued the Authorized Return of Overseas Launch Space Object (AROLSO) for Hayabusa’s sample return capsule. If the capsule does contain samples JAXA will consider it gravy. Hayabusa returned dramatic photos of the asteroid, conducted intense scientific observations, and returned to Earth under some of the most adverse conditions imaginable which makes Hayabusa one of the most successful spacecraft ever launched by Japan.