Hayabusa is approaching Itokawa

Hayabusa, a small probe launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in May 2003, is now less than 750 kilometers away from the Itokawa asteroid and will return to Earth in June 2007 with 100 milligrams of materials picked from the asteroid.

Hayabusa, also known as MUSES-C, is a small probe launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in May 2003. Its goal was to reach the Itokawa asteroid, named after the late Dr. Hideo Itokawa, the father of Japan’s space development program. According to News24.com, from South Africa, Hayabusa is now less than 750 kilometers away from the 630-metre asteroid and it will stay around it for about three months. In November, Hayabusa will send a five-grams projectile into the surface at a speed of 1,800 kph. It will then collect some material kicked out of the asteroid, maybe 100 milligrams, before returning to Earth in June 2007. As asteroids are believed to have preserved some state of the early solar system, the analysis of these materials might give us interesting clues about the birth of our Solar system.

Below is a illustration showing Hayabusa on its trip to Itokawa (Credit: JAXA). This artist's rendering has been extracted from this fact sheet about the Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa (PDF format, 2 pages, 228 KB).

Hayabusa on its trip to Itokawa

Here are some more details from News24.com about this mission.

[In November 2005,] Hayabusa will gingerly manoeuvre itself to within a few metres of Itokawa and then fire a projectile weighing about five grams into the surface at a speed of 300 metres per second, or around 1 800kms an hour.
If the arithmetic is right and luck is on Hayabusa's side, material will be kicked out of the asteroid and some of it will shoot up a slender funnel. The pellets are scheduled to be shot at three different sites in the asteroid, with each tiny sample being carefully stowed away onboard.

Hayabusa will also employ a hopping robot, which can move around on the asteroid’s surface.

The spacecraft will also deploy a little robot, about the size of a large beer can, called Minerva, which for a couple of days will "hop" around the asteroid's surface, taking pictures and measuring the temperature.

For other images about the Itokawa asteroid taken by Hayabusa, you can look at this press release issued by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, "Hayabusa Successfully Captures The Shape of Asteroid Itokawa."

And the latest updates about this space mission will continue to be available from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency web site in a foreseeable future.

Sources: News24.com, South Africa, September 6, 2005; and various web sites

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