Universe Today

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe drops off bits of an asteroid

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth today and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 7.2 million miles from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of more than 26,000 mph.


Japanese firms finish acquisition of Spaceflight

SpaceX SSO-A launch
One of Spaceflight’s most notable acccomplishments was the launch of 64 satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. (SpaceX Photo)

Japan’s Mitsui & Co., working in partnership with Yamasa Co. Ltd., has completed the acquisition of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. from its parent company, Spaceflight Industries.

Today’s announcement of the transaction’s completion follows up on February’s announcement of the sale for an undisclosed amount. Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary, BlackSky Global, isn’t part of the transaction and will continue to operate as a privately held company with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va.

Spaceflight Industries also has a 50% share in LeoStella, a satellite manufacturing company based in Tukwila, Wash. The other half of that joint venture is owned by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian aerospace company.

Mitsui and Yamasa will similarly split ownership of Spaceflight Inc. as a 50-50 joint venture, operating independently with its headquarters remaining in Seattle.

The sale brings a parting of the ways for Spaceflight Inc., which focuses on arranging launch services for rideshare satellites; and BlackSky, which is building a satellite constellation for Earth observation and provides geospatial data analysis tools.

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Japanese astronaut joins future Dragon crew

Soichi Noguchi
Veteran Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, seen here in 2010, is joining the crew of a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

The first non-American to be added to the crew for a SpaceX Dragon flight to the International Space Station is Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

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Billionaire quits moonshot matchmaking TV show

Yusaku Maezawa
Japanese billionaire space enthusiast Yusaku Maezawa has broken up with AbemaTV, which was working on a reality-TV dating show focusing on his planned trip around the moon. (Yusaku Maezawa via Twitter)

It’s not you, it’s me: That’s basically what Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is saying about his decision to end participation in a reality-TV matchmaking show that would have traced the selection of a woman contestant to accompany him on a trip around the moon.

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Asteroid probe carries samples back toward Earth

Asteroid Ryugu
An image from Hayabusa 2’s camera shows the half-mile-wide, diamond-shaped asteroid known as Ryugu receding in the metaphorical rear-view mirror. (JAXA, Chiba Institute of Technology and Collaborators)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and its science team bid a bittersweet farewell to the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, and began the months-long return trip to Earth with a precious set of samples.

“This is an emotional moment!” the team tweeted on Nov. 12.

“It’s sad to say goodbye to Ryugu,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s command center. “Literally it has been at the center of our lives over the past one and a half years.”

The farewell isn’t finished quite yet, however. Over the next few days, Hayabusa 2’s camera will capture pictures of the half-mile-wide asteroid as it recedes into the background of space. Then the probe’s field of view will turn back toward Earth for the return journey.

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Spaceflight helps out with shooting-star satellite

ALE-2 satellite
An artist’s conception shows the ALE-2 shooting-star satellite in orbit. (ALE / Spaceflight Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s handling the pre-launch logistics for a Japanese satellite that’s designed to spray artificial shooting stars into the sky.

Tokyo-based ALE’s spacecraft is just one of seven satellites due to be sent into orbit from New Zealand as early as Nov. 25, aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.

It’ll be the 10th Electron launch, earning the nickname “Running Out of Fingers.” It’ll also be the first launch to test the guidance and navigation hardware as well as the sensors that Rocket Lab will eventually use to help make the Electron’s first stage recoverable.

No recovery will be attempted during this mission.

The shooting-star satellite, ALE-2, is already making headlines in New Zealand. It’s designed to release particles from its sun-synchronous orbit below the International Space Station’s altitude, according to a timed schedule. When the particles re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, they’re supposed to burn up and create the appearance of meteors as seen from the ground.

In addition to the entertainment factor, ALE says scientists participating in the Sky Canvas project will be able to study the path of the particles during re-entry. That could lead to more accurate predictions of the path of satellites during orbital decay, and perhaps contribute to studies of weather and climate change.

“This launch gets us much closer to realizing the world’s first man-made shooting star,” ALE’s CEO, Lena Okajima, said in a news release. “We really appreciate Spaceflight`s support and attention to our mission, and we’re honored to take this big step with them.”

Some observers say the Sky Canvas project will be a distraction for astronomers as well as an attraction for skywatchers. Similar examples include the “Humanity Star” disco-ball satellite that Rocket Lab launched in 2018, and SpaceX’s first batch of 60 Starlink satellites.

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Japan joins the global gravitational wave hunt

KAGRA detector
An illustration provides a cutaway view of the underground KAGRA gravitational-wave detector in Japan. (ICRR / Univ. of Tokyo Illustration)

Japan’s Kamioka Gravitational-Wave Detector, or KAGRA, is due to start teaming up with similar detectors in Washington state, Louisiana and Italy in December, boosting scientists’ ability to triangulate on the origins of cataclysmic cosmic events such as black hole smash-ups.

Representatives of KAGRA, the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Europe’s Virgo detector signed a memorandum of agreement today in Toyama, Japan, to confirm their collaboration. The agreement includes plans for joint observations and data sharing.

“This is a great example of international scientific cooperation,” Caltech’s David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said in a news release. “Having KAGRA join our network of gravitational-wave observatories will significantly enhance the science in the coming decade.”

Nobel-winning physicist Takaaki Kajita, principal investigator of the KAGRA project, said “we are looking forward to joining the network of gravitational-wave observations later this year.”

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Watch a Japanese probe blast an asteroid

If there was ever any doubt that Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft was able to get access to samples from an asteroid called Ryugu last month, a video released today should put those doubts to rest.

The black-and-white video clip, shot by the probe’s CAM-H monitoring camera, shows the sampling horn being lowered to the sunlit surface. Hayabusa 2 creeps nearer and nearer to its shadow, and suddenly there’s a spray of debris as the probe fires a bullet made of tantalum and backs away.

“Rocks reaching sizes of several tens of centimeters in diameter were ejected,” the Hayabusa 2 team said today in a science status report. “Many chips of this released debris are flattened plate-shaped and appear to reach quite a high altitude.”

Hayabusa 2’s sampling horn is designed to capture some of that debris. “The potential for sample collection is high,” the team reported.

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Japan’s ispace moon mission plans battery test

ispace lander and rover
Artwork shows ispace’s Hakuto-R lander and rover on the lunar surface. (ispace Illustration)

The Japanese moon venture known as ispace says it has recruited new corporate partners and struck a deal to put a commercial payload on its Hakuto-R lunar lander.

Ispace has arranged for two spacecraft to be launched to the moon, in 2020 and 2021, as secondary payloads on SpaceX rockets. Those will be rideshare missions similar to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch that sent SpaceIL’s Israeli-made lander on its way to the moon tonight.

Like SpaceIL, ispace includes veterans of a team that competed in the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize. Team Hakuto took its name from the Japanese word for “white rabbit.” The R in the name of ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar project stands for “reboot.”

Ispace says it’s raised nearly $95 million in funding to support the Hakuto-R campaign. The 2020 mission would put a probe in lunar orbit, and the 2021 mission would send a lander and rover spacecraft to the lunar surface.

In a news release issued today, ispace says Japan-based NGK Spark Plug Co. has agreed to be a corporate partner in the Hakuto-R program. Part of the partnership will involve developing a payload to test solid-state battery technology on the moon.

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Hayabusa 2 probe touches down on asteroid

Hayabusa 2 after touchdown
An image captured just after the Hayabusa 2’s touchdown on asteroid Ryugu shows the H-shaped shadow of the spacecraft and its solar panels. The dark splotch represents material disturbed by the sample collection operation. (JAXA Photo via Twitter)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock.

The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact.

In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid.

“Based on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” the Hayabusa 2 team tweeted. “A detailed analysis will now be done.”

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