Sampling an Asteroid the Right Way: Japan’s Hayabusa

On 9th May 2003, the Japanese State Space Agency (JAXA) launched Hayabusa 1 aboard the M-V Launch Vehicle- a spacecraft that was one of its kind. This historic endeavor would soon become groundbreaking when the spacecraft returned with the first near-Earth asteroid soil sample seven years later, after traveling a few billion miles. 

On 13th June 2010, Hayabusa brought samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa. The successful mission not only explored an unknown asteroid but also validated countless new aerospace engineering technologies, from propulsion to atmospheric re-entry. Despite facing numerous technical challenges, including multiple engine failures and loss of communication, Hayabusa managed to complete its mission, mirroring the ingenuity of JAXA’s scientists. The spacecraft was among the first to use autonomous navigation, allowing its journey to continue with minimal human intervention. 

Hayabusa is Japanese for peregrine falcon, a bird that often serves as a metaphor for speed. The targets (Itokawa and Ryugu asteroids) of both Hayabusa missions are named after them, reflecting connections to Japan’s heritage rooted in folklore and mythology. 

Soon after the success of their first mission, the Japanese launched Hayabusa 2 in the December of 2014. Another pioneer of its discipline, the second Hayabusa would explore remarkable precisions during its sample collection maneuvers and immaculate touchdowns. Hayabusa 2 effortlessly exploded a nonexplosive, 2-kilogram copper projectile into Ryugu, creating a crater and stirring up material from beneath its surface. Upon its dramatic re-entry into the earthen atmosphere in 2020, the second Hayabusa brought back a wealth of data and samples from 162173 Ryugu. These 5.4 grams of rocky grains helped scientists better understand the formation of our solar planetesimals, a key piece of the puzzle regarding the solar system’s origin. 

Both Hayabusa missions served as testbeds for innovative aerospace technologies; ion engines, sampling mechanisms, and high-temperature re-entry shielding. These advancements have greatly influenced space science today- going on to inspire NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which recently returned samples from asteroid Bennu. These endeavors stand as a testament to innovation, demonstrating the boundless capabilities of modern aerospace engineering and even the unfettered conquest of the human mind to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. 

Back to blog

Authored by Mihika Singhania

Billabong High International School; Kanpur, India.