The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa spacecraft streaked across the sky like a saber of light through the clouds as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Woomera Test Range in Australia on 13 June. In Kingoonya, the spacecraft’s re-entry was visible to the human eye for only 15 seconds.
Launched 9 May 2003, from the Kagoshima Space Centre, Uchinoura, Japan, Hayabusa was designed as a flying testbed. Its mission: to research several new engineering technologies necessary for returning planetary samples to Earth for further study. With Hayabusa, JAXA scientists and engineers hoped to obtain detailed information on electrical propulsion and autonomous navigation, as well as an asteroid sampler and sample re-entry capsule.
The 510-kg Hayabusa spacecraft rendezvoused with asteroid Itokawa in September 2005. Over the next two-and-a-half months, the spacecraft made up-close and personal scientific observations of the asteroid's shape, terrain, surface altitude distribution, mineral composition, gravity, and the way it reflected the Sun's rays. On 25 November of that year, Hayabusa briefly touched down on the surface of Itokawa. That was only the second time in history a spacecraft descended to the surface of an asteroid (Nasa's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous-Shoemaker spacecraft landed on asteroid Eros on 12 February 2001). Hayabusa marked the first attempt to sample asteroid surface material.
The spacecraft departed Itokawa in January 2007. The road home for the technology demonstrator was a long one, with several anomalies encountered along the way. But now the spacecraft is home. Any samples retrieved from Itokawa will provide exciting new insights to understanding the early history of the solar system.
Image credit: Nasa/Ed Schilling