June 7, 2010

Asteroid Probe Completes Third Trajectory On Path Home

Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusa has now been placed on course to land in Australia for its return to Earth.

The spacecraft is returning home from its 2005 venture to the asteroid Itokawa.

Hayabusa has achieved a crucial engine firing to aim the probe at the Woomera Protected Area in southern Australia on June 13.

The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) said that Hayabusa had successfully completed its third Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM), which is designed to guide the spacecraft for its touchdown.

The spacecraft now lies 2,236,936 miles away from our planet.

NASA said it will send a DC-8 plane from California to observe the scheduled landing.

The aircraft contains imaging and spectrographic cameras that capture different aspects of the craft's re-entry.

Asteroids contain primordial material left over from the formation of the Solar System billions of years ago. 

Hayabusa's mission was to make two "touchdowns" on Itokawa and collect rocks and soil.  However, the spacecraft failed to fire a metal bullet designed to gather the samples.

In 2005, a fuel leak left Hayabua's chemical propellant tanks empty, leaving engineers to use the craft's ion engines to guide it home.

Ion thrusters have low acceleration but are highly efficient.  Each trajectory correction takes much longer to complete.


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