microCAST Reissue - Hayabusa 2: Romancing Asteroids
LISTEN INSTEAD OF READING
This article, originally published on September 24, is reissued here to highlight the addition of a MICROCAST track.
• • •
Right: In space, there are no aerodynamics!
Much Credit Due
Ode to Hayabusa
In May of 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the asteroid-bound Hayabusa spacecraft to relatively little fanfare. Which was pretty lame on humanity's part given that it was basically the most ambitious go-and-come-back space probe effort like...ever. Atop the emotional neglect, when Hayabusa reached asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005, the probe started getting a little bit glitchy. Its tag-a-long mini-lander went space-AWOL, engines had to be temporarily shut down, and there were occasional comms issues as well. But, eventually it was able to conduct extensive analysis, get up-close and personal with with the asteroid, siphon up a few specs of space dust, and bring it on back home. That had never been done.
There was early debate over the purity of Hayabusa’s asteroid take-out, and although the samples were miniscule, it was eventually shown to be genuine asteroid parts. And even more credit is due: Hayabusa was the first craft to use xenon ion engines (that burned continuously for almost two years!), it autonomously touched down on the asteroid several times using optical sensor thingys, and, as we know, it came back home to us. That’s pretty badass for a probe first conceived in the mid-1980s and launched 11.5 years ago.
Although a bit of a P.I.A., the mission was ultimately a huge success with a laundry list of space firsts. But, for whatever reason, it just kinda faded away from the global stage. Perhaps too many people heard too early and too often that it just wasn’t working out and assumed failure, perhaps it was the second Iraq war dominating the news around the 2003 launch, and maybe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 overshadowed its arrival at Itokawa. Whatever the case, when it finally returned to earth in 2010, we were all like...HayaWhatNow?
The April 2012 announcement marking the formation of Planetary Resources, a coalition of well-monied supertech rockstars eager to begin laying the groundwork for practical asteroid mining, drove the point home: as word flooded into tech and mainline media, almost no one mentioned that human beings had in fact already conducted a precedent-setting, successful to-and-from asteroid mission. Mining? No, not really. Proof of concept? Yeah, yeah kinda. Alas, Hayabusa never really got its due. Now then...
Upsampling Duet and a Collaborative Remix
Rosetta Me Too?
So, here we are at the now, and we’ve been hearing a whole lot about the European Space Agency’s (ESA) super exciting, Hayabusa-parallel, and thus far successful comet intercept mission. Launched just under a year after Hayabusa, the versatile Rosetta probe begin its mission by snapping photos and conducting fly-bys of Mars and asteroids and other comets and stuff (and earth a few times for slingshot maneuvers). Now, 10.5 years later, the probe has matched pace with and taken orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (holy crap space is complicated and huge, right?!). In orbit now for 6 weeks, the probe has already returned some amazing photos and a pile of data, and over the past seven days or so, ESA mission coordinators have decided on a site where the probe’s Philae lander will float down and chomp on (and hopefully not go all wayward like Hayabusa’s).
Importantly, Rosetta is orbiting a comet, not an asteroid - a first - and will do so for the next 16 months just like, you know, scanning and analyzing and reporting back to the ESA’s Houston, located in Darmstadt, Germany. Philae, meanwhile, upon reaching the surface and anchoring down, will begin drilling and searching for organic compounds and whatnot. If all goes as planned, Rosetta will wrap up its mission in December of 2015. Like Hayabusa, Rosetta incorporates completely unprecedented, hardcore scientific instruments, and its analysis-based transmissions will add who knows how many volumes to our understanding of comets. Kinda sadly, space death is Rosetta’s destiny: like so many monkey astronauts, it will not be returning. But there’s another that will.
Hayabusa 2: J-Space Probe Level-Up with a Side of Eurobot (hold the mining)
In concept, planning, and development stages since 2006, Hayabusa 2 the actual thing was revealed to the public just a few weeks ago. Launch is scheduled for December of this year. The probe is expected to rendezvous with its target in 2018, hang out for about 18 months, and if all goes per plan, it will return to earth in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s damn exciting stuff!
But the thing is, contrary to what’s been link-baitedly reported over the past few weeks, Hayabusa 2 is not really about asteroid mining. Although its travel is conceptually parallel to a space mining undertaking, i.e., a human-made device visiting an asteroid and bringing parts of it back, the mission is explicitly and simply about obtaining more samples, returning the material to earth, and then unleashing the science. As such, Hayabusa 2 is at best a 3rd cousin to space mining, and the “Japan Is Launching an Asteroid Mining Space Program” headlines are more than a lot disingenuous. That’s right, scandalous Katie at Business Insider, we’re talking to you. Sure, it’s nice that you’re reporting on such things, and JAXA has indeed squeezed in a bunch of new tech intended to update, improve upon, and expand the scope of work accomplished by Hayabusa 2’s finicky little brother, but they don’t even use the word, and we’re pretty sure sample extraction and return is not what ‘mining’ implies. Yes, we could be wrong, except for the part where we’re totally not.
[Now, that's not to say we're above being disingenuous - just look at the crappy Photoshop up there! No, see we’re just superior because we're honest about the ‘mining’ implication and also because we address the concept beyond the hooky headline. Sigh. When Aki becomes a bastion of modern journalistic integrity, we know stuff’s getting screwed up, right?]
So, okay - with all its sexy new tech, Hayabusa 2 is slated to do a whole lotta cool when it arrives at its target: an approximately 900-meter (2,952 ft.) spherical asteroid designated (162173) 1999 JU3. This rock is more ancient than Itokawa and believed to be rich in water and organic compounds present since the beginnings of the solar system (Hey, can’t mine those, can ya!? Oh, okay, we’ll leave it alone). Rather than float on down and attempt to hoover up whatever might be laying around on the surface, Hayabusa 2 is going to fire a projectile at the asteroid, eject a remote camera to watch the show, scoot around to the other side to avoid possible shrapnel damage, and then swing back around to scoop up some proper asteroid debris. Additionally, a 10 kg (22 lb.) lander called MASCOT, having already conducted observational analysis from its berth on Hayabusa 2, will descend to the surface and rummage around checking stuff out.
The approximately $150 million project has had some financial and developmental speedbumps, but the adversity has resulted in a very exciting collaboration: the MASCOT lander was actually built by the German Space Agency (DLR), it includes a bunch of Deutsche tech, and was completed in cooperation with the French Space Agency (CNES). A fine international affair.
What’s the point of all this? Oh, you know, just to expand our knowledge of the origin and evolution of the solar system and life therein and why everything exists and why we’re here to ask the questions in the first place and such. You know, like you do...WHEN WHAT YOU DO IS THE VERY ESSENCE OF AWESOME!...that is.
As with those that came and went, this series of space probes, literally embodying the absolute finest sciencey stuff we fleshy mammals have yet conceived, deserve our attention, and the international organizations behind them deserve our respect and admiration. And, if one may be blunt, as one usually is, these and future programs deserve gigantic shitloads of funding.
Space exploration, perhaps the purest example of Trickle-Down Technomics©®™, is both a privilege and a responsibility, and although rarely discussed in practical terms, the ROI quite likely includes the long-term survival of the human race. So you go JAXA, you go.
Learn more about space probes Hayabusa 1 here, Rosetta here, the new and improved Hayabusa 2 here, and also for NASA’s just-arrived-at-Mars MAVEN mission, go here. Main image Japanified and republished with permission from Anthrobotic.com’s REMINDER: Probable Off-Planet Mining Announcement, & Japan has its Hand Raised - Trickle-Down Technomics©®™ is a registered, copyrighted, reserved, exclusive trademark of Anthrobotic Services: Research & Multimedia