Monday, June 14, 2010

The Little Spacecraft That Could

They did it!!!

Over the weekend, JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft successfully returned to Earth, landing in the Australian outback, after a long and harrowing trip to an asteroid.  Hopefully, the capsule will contain particles from asteroid Itokawa it briefly touched down on in September, 2005.  Here is a photo of the capsule streaking across the night sky:

While nobody would ever classify Hayabusa as a microsatellite, or even a small satellite (however, the $100M price tag for the mission is not as large as many JPL missions), I think the success of this mission speaks volumes to the ingenuity of the JAXA satellite engineers (from Japan) to troubleshoot problems and find creative ways around them.  On several occasions throughout its 7-year mission, the Hayabusa team faced what many felt was a certain demise of the spacecraft and the asteroid sample-return mission -- not the least of which involved a major fuel leak.

With satellite missions getting more and more ambitious, it's only natural that microsatellite missions will follow suit.  We might even see microsatellites leave Earth's orbit in the coming years.  Who knows!  If and when small satellites start thinking "outside the orbit", it will be problem solving like this (exhibited by the JAXA engineers) that makes it possible.

So, to the Japanese Hayabusa engineers, hats off to you!

Omedetou!  (Congratulations in Japanese)

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