Japan Launches New Space Probe

Following the epic voyage of the first Hayabusa space probe to the asteroid Itokawa (named after Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in science) – and back, Japan last week launched a new and improved version. Its mission? Nothing less than seeking to uncover the mystery of life.

The space probe Hayabusa-2 set off Dec. 3 from the Tanegashima Space Center for a round-trip voyage that will last about six years, returning to earth with precious samples of “asteroid rocks” in 2020.

It is due to arrive at the “near earth object” 1999JU3 ( the Japanese are seeking permission to name the asteroid) in about the summer of 2018 then spend about a year surveying the surface of the solar object before returning to earth.

Probably because it doesn’t take pictures and beam them back to earth like the European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta probe to a distant comet, the Hayabusa missions have never garnered much global interest outside the world of scientists and space enthusiasts.

However, the Japanese space vehicle does one thing that the Rosetta probe and other probes to Mars and the moon don’t. It lands and then returns to Earth. Indeed, the Hayabusa-1 mission was the first round-trip space mission since the Apollo moon landings of the 1970s. It was also the deepest.

In a sense, both the Hayabusa-2 and the Rosetta probes are seeking the answers from two different planetary bodies to the same questions: the origin of the solar system and the origin of life. The holy grail of both missions would be to discover amino acids.

Many scientists believe that life-giving acids may have traveled to Earth by “hitching rides” on asteroids or comets. The asteroid 1999JU3 is also believed to be about 6 million years old, which places it at the beginning of the solar system and might provide answers to its origin.

Hayabusa-1 failed in its main mission, when the instrument that was to stir up dust, collect it and bring it home malfunctioned (although the scientists did try to analyze some of the few particles that did make it back to Japan.)

This time the plan is have Hayabusa-2 drop a “bomb” on the asteroid, “hide” behind the far side of the asteroid until it explodes and then land the probe in the crater. The mission also hopes in that way to recover rocks from beneath the surface that would not be altered by cosmic rays or other phenomenon.

Unlike China, which is clearly aiming to put a Chinese astronaut on the Moon, Japan has essentially carved out a special niche in space exploration, eschewing manned flights in favor of deep-space probes. Not all have been successful. Japan too has had its share of misadventures.

In 2009 Japan launched Akatsuki on a voyage to Venus specifically to study its turbulent climate to understand global warming better, but it failed to enter the planet’s orbit. The first Hayabusa mission too almost failed to return. Technicians at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had to overcome numerous setbacks during the long voyag. Three of the four ion thrusters stopped working during the trip, a fuel leak rendered the chemical engine inoperable, two of the three attitude control antennas broke down and communication was lost for 50 days after the landing.

Despite these trials and nail-biting moments, the first Hayabusa did return and landed safely in the far reaches of the Western Australia desert following a 600 million km round trip.

The second Hayabusa space craft features a host of technologies that were not aboard the original spacecraft but were developed to answer many of the problems the original probe experienced. They include an improved antenna and communications system, a redesigned ion engine and more backup equipment. Life may have a meaning after all.