Thinking Tech

Japanese Hayabusa probe returns from a tiny asteroid, 3 billion miles away

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The Japanese Hayabusa probe burned up in Earth's atmosphere on Sunday, but not before releasing the capsule that was the reason for its seven-year journey.

Japan launched the Hayabusa (Japanese for peregrine falcon) probe back in 2003, aimed at a small near-earth asteroid named Itokawa. The probe was designed to land on Itokawa, a mile-long bean-shaped asteroid, gather samples, and return home, which it did, this past weekend. That image above is of the probe burning up in our atmosphere--don't worry, that was part of the plan. The fireworks-like display was the finale to a seven-year journey.

That the mission was successful says a great deal about the ingenuity of those involved in the project. Hayabusa overcame several difficulties that could have rendered the mission a failure, including damage from a solar flare, broken control wheels, failing ion thrusters, and communication issues. But the Japanese team in charge of the project dealt with each obstacle in turn and guided the probe home safely.

Hayabusa burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on Sunday, as designed (albeit three years late, due to the aforementioned difficulties), but before doing so released a 15-inch capsule hopefully filled with pieces of the asteroid on which it landed. The capsule landed in the Australian desert, and will be flown to Japan where it will be cleaned and analyzed. That process could take several months, so it might be awhile before we see what's inside it.

The biggest concern is that there may not be anything inside the capsule; Hayabusa was supposed to fire a sort of bullet into the asteroid to dislodge material for transport, and the bullet didn't fire. But the researchers are holding out hope that the capsule will still contain dust or other detritus from Itokawa.

Even if Hayabusa was unable to retrieve any asteroid material, it'll still have been a very successful trip. The problems the Hayabusa team encountered will allow the next trip (maybe even a manned trip, in time) to go much more smoothly.

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Dan Nosowitz

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dan Nosowitz has written for Popular Science, Fast Company and Gizmodo. He holds a degree from McGill University in Canada. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure