Trouble at Itokawa

The Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft has just suffered another set-back according to New Scientist. The small Minerva (Micro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid) probe that was due to hop around on the surface of asteroid Itokawa has drifted off into space.

It seems that the loss occured due to an unfortunate series of events. It started when altimeter measurements mis-judged the distance between the main spacecraft and the asteroid. When the mission specialists realised that they were only 100m from Itokawa they decided to release Minerva which doesn't have its own thrusters. However, that decision coincided with an antenna changeover back here on the Earth which resulted in a delay before the command could be sent. In the mean time, Hayabusa's thrusters had fired automatically to maintain a minimum height above the surface of the asteroid. So, when the command arrived, Hayabusa was not where it had been - it was moving away from the asteroid. That meant that Minerva was released at a relative speed of 15cm (6 inches) per second away from the asteroid. With an escape velocity of 13cm per second, Minerva could do nothing but escape.

I will have my fingers crossed for the remainder of the mission. Once again it shows that space is difficult.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 14th Nov 2005 (13:09 UTC) | Permalink
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