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June 13, 2020

Ten years ago, an interplanetary projectile streaked to Earth. It actually came from Earth, but it carried a cargo from beyond our planet: less than a gram of dust from the surface of an asteroid.

Hayabusa was a test in patience and planning. The Japanese mission was launched in 2003. But a lot went wrong. A solar flare damaged its solar cells, which powered its engines. That delayed its arrival at the asteroid Itokawa.

Once there, it was supposed to drop to the surface and fire some small “bullets” into the asteroid. It then would gather up some of the dust blasted off the surface. But that didn’t work. Instead, the craft hit the asteroid. That knocked off a few dust grains for its collectors.

Hayabusa also carried a small rover. But it was deployed a bit late, so it missed the asteroid entirely. And problems with communications and other systems delayed the mission’s return to Earth.

Flight controllers worked around the problems, though, and got the craft back home on June 13th of 2010. Analysis found that Hayabusa had collected about 1,500 dust grains. They showed that Itokawa probably was a fragment of a larger asteroid. They also showed that the asteroid matches the composition of a common class of meteorites.

Hayabusa 2 has studied another asteroid. It successfully deployed several small rovers, and appears to have nabbed samples of the surface. It’s on its way back to Earth, with arrival scheduled for December.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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