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June 8, 2010

DC-8 Flying Laboratory Heading To Australia For Hayabusa Re-entry

A planeload of scientists and specialized instruments aboard NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory is scheduled to depart NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility at Palmdale, Calif., for Australia Tuesday evening, June 8, to catch a glimpse of the fiery return of a Japanese spacecraft to Earth on June 13.

The group of astronomers from NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other institutions are flying to Melbourne, Australia to make final preparations for the highly anticipated return of JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft, which may bring back to Earth a sample of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa. Hayabusa is expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land in the Woomera Test Range in southern Australia late Sunday night, June 13.

The team of 27 astronomers will have their instruments focused out the DC-8's specialized windows as it cruises at an altitude of 39,000 feet, far above light pollution and clouds. Using their suite of spectroscopic and radiometric imaging instruments, they hope to get a clear reading on what happens during the fiery re-entry process when the spacecraft descends like an artificial meteor at more than 27,000 mph.

At the same time, ground-based observation teams will attempt to reconstruct the as-flown trajectory to correlate with the airborne imaging data.

Following its launch in 2003, Hayabusa arrived at Itokawa in September 2005 and observing the asteroid's shape, terrain, mineral composition, gravity and other aspects over the next 2 ½ months. Hayabusa briefly touched down on Itokawa's surface that November to sample surface material.

NASA's primary goal during the airborne mission is to study the re-entry of Hayabusa's 40-pound sample return capsule to enable heat shield designers and engineers gain technological insight for the development of NASA's future exploration vehicles.

Astronomers made similar airborne studies from NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory for the September 2008 re-entry of the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle "Jules Verne," as well as the January 2006 Stardust sample return re-entry over Utah. During those missions, scientists studied the levels of radiation, light and out-gassing of the descending spacecraft, to better understand meteor and heat shield radiation mechanisms.

NASA's Science Mission Directorate is supporting the airborne observation of the Hayabusa SRC re-entry via the In-Space Propulsion Technology Project.

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