I am in El Paso at the Texas Medical Branch hospital. I have a hand injury from gardening and was referred to a doctor in El Paso. I went to Google Maps, got the directions and called the doctor’s office to make sure of the route. I got lost. Both sets of directions had the same flaw – wrong freeway exit, and each had conflicting instructions. I drove myself so I was able to course correct. However, it’s not that easy for spacecraft to course correct. Consider the recent Hayabusa Misson: travel to an asteroid 6 billion miles away, land on the asteroid twice, take samples, and return to earth with the samples intact.
I listen to Car Talk on Saturdays on KRWG. At least once a month, someone calls about a long trip they are planning and ask the guys how to get their car or truck ready. They are doing what engineers and scientists do when planning deep space missions, just on a different scale.
The Japanese Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon) Mission, was a 7 year, 6 billion mile round trip to the little asteroid Itokawa , named after Dr. Hideo Itokawa. The main objective of the mission was to retrieve dust particles from Itokawas’ surface and return them to earth. Google the mission and get the stunning details on this entire project. I won’t list them here. This story is about the amazing times we live in and how we are beginning to get answers to simple questions like, where do we come from, what are we made of, and in this case, why go to an asteroid? Let’s start there.
An asteroid is a rock, a time capsule, believed to contain clues that help us piece together the origin and evolution of the elements that make up the solar system. Bringing back samples from a time capsule indicating the origins of the solar system would advance scientific knowledge. Little kids want to know where they come from; it’s part of being human. If you take an aspirin, you know, humans are similar, aspirin relieves pain for most of us, so how did it happen we are mostly made the same? Asteroid dust could be our next set of clues.
Most kids are satisfied with – you came from…take your pick. Parents usually try the short answers first and hope the questions stop before detail is required. Well, after reading this article, you may be off the hook for the birds and bees talk until 8th grade or so. Yikes – 8th grade. That’s someone else’s article.
The Japanese were determined to add to our expanding knowledge not only about the origins of life, but also to understand the engineering requirements of long duration spaceflight. They recovered from multiple system failures on this modest spacecraft. One of the technologies used on this six billion mile trip was the ion engine, there were 4. We all get hysterical over a Toyota engine if it tops 200,000 miles. Well, think about it, seven years, six billion miles. The moon is only 283,000 miles away. Mars at its closest point to earth was about 340 million miles, in 1993, so a round trip might be as little as approximately 700 million miles. Short by comparison to the Hayabusa mission. Granted the ion engine caused most of the mission problems too, but they worked. They are one of the breakthrough technologies to be examined as the Japanese, and the U.S who were partners on the mission, breakdown how to use all we learned from this mission.
Haybusa is the first mission ever to return samples from an asteroid’s surface. We had another first this week, the launch and reentry of the SpaceX Dragon lab cargo capsule from low earth orbit. As reported earlier in the week in the Sun News, this was the first commercial company to assume the majority of the development risk for a spacecraft to return to earth from orbit. Our NASA White Sands Test Facility personnel helped Space X trained company crew on handling and use of appropriate protocols while handling liquid oxygen and other high pressure fuels used on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The Falcon 9 engines are also new technologies developed by SpaceX. The Falcon 9 launched the Dragon lab. The launch vehicle and the capsule were designed to bridge the gap to service the International Space Station when the Shuttle stops flying in a year. I am grateful to be alive during very interesting times.