Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Visit to an Asteroid

I don't know if this is making much news elsewhere, but the Japanese probe Hayabusa touched down on the asteroid Itokawa on Saturday, and is believed to have retrieved soil samples which it will hopefully return to Earth next June.

This is the first landing on a body other than the Moon, Mars, and Venus [note: that's what their press release said, but they've apparently forgotten about Cassini-Huygens' landing on Titan], and the first by a country other than the U.S. or U.S.S.R./Russia. If the sample return succeeds, it will be the first sample return (by anyone) from beyond the Moon's orbit, too. The probe uses an ion engine, which is very advanced technology, and had to navigate and land autonomously due to the distances involved, which is impressive. It hasn't all been smooth; this was the second landing/sample retrieval attempt, and a secondary probe failed to land, as well.

Itokawa is a fascinating asteroid; it has no craters. It looks a little like Joshua Tree, with lots of rocks sticking up out of a dusty plain.

A somewhat broken English news release is here, better pictures on the Japanese page here, current status (English) here, and the English project home page here.

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