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Asteroid Probe Hayabusa Returns to Earth after Seven-Year Odyssey [ 2010.08.26 ]

[NewsJapan.net] The Japanese space probe Hayabusa, which attempted to collect rock samples of the asteroid Itokawa 300 million kilometers away, returned to Earth in the night of June 13 (Japan time) after its seven-year space journey, becoming the world’s first probe to return home after making a landing farther away than the moon. After releasing a capsule hoped to contain samples collected on Itokawa, Hayabusa burnt up on entering the atmosphere. The capsule, which was recovered in good condition in Australia’s Woomera desert, will be transferred to Japan sealed up and opened under close supervision. If sand or other materials from Itokawa are contained within the capsule, it will be the world’s first material directly collected on a minor planet.

Rising Expectations of Clues to Origin of Solar System

Reflecting the Japanese people’s high degree of interest in the return of Hayabusa, Japanese newspapers and television stations prominently reported the news. Launched in May 2003, Hayabusa landed on Itokawa in November 2005 and attempted to collect rock samples of the asteroid. Because devices failed to work as expected, however, it is not clear if the probe succeeded in its mission. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the impact of the probe’s landing stirred up surface materials of the asteroid, such as sand, possibly causing some of them to be blown into the capsule. Unlike other planets, including Earth, the asteroid Itokawa is believed to have remained unchanged since it was formed 4.6 billion years ago. So if the probe succeeded in collecting sand from the asteroid, it will tell us something about the original state of Earth. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) expects that it could also provide clues to the origin of the solar system.

Hayabusa experienced many troubles from immediately after its launch, and its journey was actually a series of desperate struggles. In December 2005 communication with Earth was disconnected for seven weeks after a fuel leak caused the spacecraft to lose balance. In November 2009, after two engines had already ceased functioning, a third of Hayabusa’s four ion engines was found to have stopped. Therefore, return to Earth was regarded as all but hopeless. Nevertheless, the probe came back after traveling a total distance of six billion kilometers. Although Hayabusa has been described as “phoenix-like” for that reason, it was indeed a “return covered with wounds.”

The significance of the return of Hayabusa lies in such factors as (1) it marked a major step forward for Japanese space technology by attempting all the technologies required to gather samples from an asteroid and possibly achieving this goal; (2) it offered proof that Japan has the technology for long-distance flights to and from a planet in the solar system; (3) a space trip achieved with extremely little fuel and small-sized high-performance ion engines, it was a breakthrough that has attracted the attention of many countries promoting space development, including the United States, and is expected to be commercialized; (4) it reminded people of the significance of making steady efforts for the development of advanced technologies; and (5) it demonstrated Japan’s excellent space technology to the world.

Editorials of Major Newspapers Express Admiration for “World-First Feat”

The Yomiuri Shimbun editorial (June 15) expressed admiration for the return of Hayabusa, describing it as “a great accomplishment in the history of space exploration” and saying, “This, along with the automatic control technology that made it possible for the probe to land on the asteroid, demonstrates to the world how advanced Japan’s technology in space exploration is.” However, the Yomiuri also added, “We are concerned with the next project. Development is currently stalled on Hayabusa 2, which is intended to conduct higher-level exploration of another asteroid. Learning from the lessons of Hayabusa’s development, which cost 13 billion yen, the new project’s budget has been set at almost the same amount.” It insisted, “The government should spend money on a meaningful project rather than on handout measures.”

The Asahi Shimbun editorial (June 16) pointed out, “This feat can be called truly historic,” “We believe Hayabusa has clearly shown us what Japan can---and should---aim for,” and “The mission taught us that anything is possible so long as everyone on the team joins forces and refuses to give up.” It also said, “Japan can rightfully boast its world-class technology. There is no question that Japan’s future hinges on how the nation develops and makes use of this special gift. We need to set exciting goals that will fire up young people, which in turn should help further advance our technology and groom the next generation of researchers and engineers.”

The Mainichi Shimbun editorial (June 15) applauded, “This is the first achievement of its kind in the world.” It went on, “Hayabusa has become a social phenomenon. Words of encouragement to Hayabusa overflowed on the Internet as it heroically struggled to return home. In the background was the tenacity that enabled battered Hayabusa to overcome many critical situations. The boundless ability of the team that supported Hayabusa is just fantastic.” The Mainichi continued, “There is concern that the Japanese are tending to shrink into their shells, but Hayabusa demonstrated the wonder of challenging without giving up. We hope that Hayabusa will be a trigger that gives young people confidence and aspiration in various fields, including space development.”

The Nikkei editorial (June 15) stated, “It proved that Japan’s ability for making high-tech products and forging good teamwork still stands out.” It went on, “Within a limited and low budget, the developers put all their knowledge into designing the spacecraft, which resulted in compact, lightweight and cost-effective instruments. The success of this dwarf planet-exploration project astonished even NASA [the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration].” The Nikkei added, “The return of Hayabusa should be seen as an opportunity for young Japanese to know the pleasure and importance of making things.” It also said, “It is vital for the growth of the Japanese economy to cultivate people and technology so that they can become Japan’s assets and industrial strength.”

The Sankei Shimbun editorial (June 13) said, “Hayabusa repeatedly picked itself up [from every fatal trouble] and headed back to Earth. Its persistent struggle has impressed people, and it has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Hayabusa-kun,’ as if it is a young boy. Such a phenomenon has never happened before.” It went on, “Hayabusa’s dogged resilience, like a strong will, was realized thanks to the thorough planning of the research group and the capability of the control team to respond flexibly. This triumph could not have been achieved without the aim of becoming the world’s number one. This was the fruit of Japan’s scientific capabilities.”

(Copyright 2010 Foreign Press Center, Japan)

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