Hayabusa Returns?

The Japanese space agency JAXA doesn't seem to have been having much luck recently. First there was Mars-bound Nozomi spacecraft which suffered a technical fault just after launch in 1998. The mission controllers were able to save the mission by adjusting the course to include two fly-bys of the Earth. This increased the journey duration to about five years meaning that it would reach Mars at the end of 2003. Unfortunately, during the extended trip around the solar system, Nozomi had its electrical systems damaged by a solar flare. So despite the years of effort, ingenuity and tenacity the mission was doomed to fail at the final hurdle.

Fast forward to 2005 when the Hayabusa probe reached asteroid Itokawa. Everything seemed to have gone fine up until arrival. Since then it has survived the failure of several gyro-wheels, the loss of the Minerva probe due to a communications problem and more recently a fuel leak. Hayabusa's mission was to collect samples of the asteroid to return to Earth and it may have indeed collected something when it briefly landed a few weeks ago. However, the partial loss of fuel and a total loss of communication has meant a change of plan for the return journey. Originally it was hoped that Hayabusa would return in 2007 but that is now out of the question. The latest projections show that there is a 66% chance of a recovery in communication by early 2007. If this happens, a revised journey home is planned based on the amount of fuel left. That will take an extra three years arriving back in 2010 if all goes well.

Hayabusa return journey
The suggested return journey for the Hayabusa spacecraft. CREDIT: Courtesy of JAXA
JAXA are in good company when it comes to suffering set-backs in space travel - just think of NASA's Mars Polar Lander, Mars Climate Orbiter, ESA's Beagle II lander or the Planetary Society's solar sail. JAXA do an impressive job of coming up with work-arounds and fall-back plans. I really do admire their determination and hope they are able to return Hayabusa back to the Earth. Even if they don't, Hayabusa has already done quite a lot.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 19th Dec 2005 (02:17 UTC) | Permalink
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