Did Hayabusa return empty-handed?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 2 2010 12:34 PM

Did Hayabusa return empty-handed?

Hayabusa-earth-returnThe New York Times is reporting that the Japanese space probe Hayabusa -- sent to physically land on the asteroid Itokawa, get a sample of the rock, and return to Earth -- may have come back without such samples. While it's not confirmed yet, it will be disappointing news if true.

Hayabusa was plagued with problems, from faulty engines to a misfiring mechanism designed to force pieces of the asteroid into a collection container. Despite these issues, engineers were able to coax the probe back into an Earth-return orbit and retrieve the sample container after a dramatic re-entry. Apparently there are traces of gas which may be vaporized rock from Itokawa, but no solid chunks. I'm sure they'll be scouring the container to look for microscopic pieces as well. hayabusa_itokawaI hope they find some. Itokawa is a rubble pile, an asteroid that has been shattered by collisions and held together by its own gravity. We know very little about such asteroids, and we need to find out more if we should ever see one on a collision course with Earth and want to push it out of the way. And we do want to do that!

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But even if Hayabusa didn't get any samples, Japan learned a lot of valuable information on how to run (and save!) a space mission of this depth and complexity, and scientists got a lot of info about Itokawa itself. Hayabusa voyaged for seven years in space, and despite these problems I think that the scientists and engineers at the Japanese space agency JAXA should be proud.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!