Emily LakdawallaMar 26, 2010

Hayabusa update: Traverse to night-side approach successful

There's a new update on the JAXA website from Junichiro Kawaguchi indicating that Hayabusa's mission team has successfully shifted the little spacecraft's approach trajectory from the day side to the night side of Earth, a critical maneuver for the survival of the sample return capsule. (There's more detail on this maneuver in my last Hayabusa post.)

Hayabusa's instantaneous trajectory -- that is, the course it would take if the spacecraft died today -- has it approaching within about 13,000 kilometers of Earth's cloud tops. That's one Earth diameter, folks; the long journey is almost over. "The delta-V left is very small, and on 27th, Hayabusa will complete its long ion engine propulsion from last spring," Kawaguchi writes. That's tomorrow! "What is left is a series of trajectory corrections and the project team is finalizing the preparations for them."

Then it'll just be watch and wait until June 13, when the sample return capsule lands in the Australian desert, and the hardworking carrier spacecraft burns up in Earth's atmosphere. Only then will we find out whether the capsule actually contains any grains of dust from asteroid Itokawa. If so, it'll be the first sample return from the surface of any body beyond our own Moon.

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