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Tucson scientist part of historic asteroid mission

Researchers hope Japanese probe will provide first-ever samples

A Tucson scientist was part of the recovery team for a seven-year Japanese mission that could provide the first asteroid sample ever returned to Earth.

The big question now is whether the successful Hayabusa mission, which streaked through Earth’s atmosphere to a landing in the Australian outback, was able to gather a small sample from Asteroid (25143) Itokawa during a brief touchdown on the rocky orb. If so, it would be a portent of a more ambitious Tucson-based sample-gathering mission to an asteroid that may follow in a few years.

Researcher Paul Abell of Tucson’s Planetary Science Institute participated in the mission’s ground recovery operations, after serving as a member of the scientific team for Hayabusa’s near-infrared spectrometer instrument, which studied the composition of Itokawa from a temporary orbit.

The spacecraft returned to Earth on Monday and was recovered by a search team in the Woomera Test Range of south Australia on Tuesday. Hayabusa visited several areas on Itokawa, which is considered a relatively small asteroid despite measuring 540 meters by 270 meters by 210 meters.

Mission scientists were unable to fire projectiles into the asteroid’s surface as planned to explosively liberate samples to collect, but they remain hopeful that some dust was collected fortuitously during the spacecraft’s soft landing on Itokawa.

“There may be a chance that during the touchdown, it might have kicked up some material that made its way into the sample container,” Abell said in a statement from PSI. “This is a function of the microgravity environment at the asteroid. The chances are slim that we got any samples, but you never know until you actually get it back, get it into the lab and have a look.”

The Japan Exploration Aerospace Agency, or JAXA, is leading the Hayabusa mission, which was launched May 9, 2003, with NASA as a partner. The return capsule will now be transported to Japan for analysis and opening of the sample collection chamber.

“They are going to basically do a CAT scan of it to see if they can see anything inside, first of all, and then they are going to open it up and check it out,” Abell explained.

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Even if no sample material from the asteroid is found inside, the mission still enabled a number of interesting discoveries.

Researchers had believed that smaller near-Earth asteroids on the scale of Itokawa were one solid piece, while larger asteroids have craters and are broken up or fragmented, Abell said. But Hayabusa’s close-in studies of Itokawa found that it exhibit a high porosity of about 40 percent, suggesting that the asteroid is a mishmash of pieces ranging from small gravel to big blocks to boulders up to half a football field long.

“We’ve studied asteroids from Earth using our ground-based sensors yet when we got there with our spacecraft we were actually very surprised,” he said. “Hayabusa has really changed the way we think about these asteroids, not only in terms of their internal structure and the surface properties, but also possibly their evolutionary lifetimes.”

Hayabusa is part of a rich variety of recent, ongoing and proposed space missions to fly by, orbit and probe near-Earth asteroids and comets, which have the potential to serve as valuable future sources of raw minerals and to cause catastrophic damage should one impact the Earth.

If a proposal to NASA being developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab is successful, a mission known as the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) would return a pristine sample of a small asteroid to Earth in the early 2020s.

Meanwhile, PSI Director Mark Sykes is a co-investigator and leader of the data archiving team for the already launched NASA Dawn mission, which is on its way to visit two major asteroids, Vesta and Ceres. Dawn is due to spend a year in orbit around Vesta starting in July 2011, and then jet off to orbit Ceres beginning in February 2015.

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Smooth Sections of Asteroid Itokawa

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