National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Asteroid Probe Set to "Collide" With Earth

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
for National Geographic News
June 11, 2009
 
A 1,124-pound (510-kilogram) space probe will "collide" with our home planet in June 2010 to simulate an approaching asteroid, Japanese scientists have announced.

The Hayabusa spacecraft is currently on its way back to Earth after a successful mission that landed on and hopefully collected samples from the asteroid Itokawa.

Potential samples will be aboard a heat-resistant capsule that will separate from Hayabusa shortly before re-entry into Earth's atmosphere so they can be recovered.

But experts say the main body of the craft will most likely disintegrate during the trip through Earth's atmosphere.

Although the plan was not part of Hayabusa's original mission, scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently decided to make the most of the doomed probe's return.

"Even though Hayabusa is not actually an asteroid, it will be on a path that will cause it to collide with the Earth in the same way as an asteroid," said JAXA spokesperson Akinori Hashimoto.

"We will monitor its movements, and the data will enable us to accurately predict the future paths of asteroids that are on course to come close to the Earth."

A Better Lookout

While other space agencies have programs for tracking asteroids that might hit Earth, JAXA doesn't yet have the ability to monitor these so-called near-Earth asteroids.

So a team of researchers headed by Makoto Yoshikawa has developed a prototype system to calculate the trajectory, time, speed, and likelihood of an asteroid impact.

In October 2008, the team had a chance to test its system by tracking asteroid 2008 TC3, an incoming space rock about 13 feet (4 meters) wide that astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona had spotted a few hours before it became a fireball in the skies over Sudan.

(Read: "Meteorites in Africa Traced to Asteroid 'Parent'.")

The system predicted the time the asteroid entered the atmosphere to within 0.5 second and pinpointed the location of its entry to within 8 miles (13 kilometers).

Hayabusa's return to Earth will be even easier to track, the scientists said, because they will have months of advance warning and plenty of information on the craft's exact size and flight path.

The event therefore provides the team with a chance to fine-tune their asteroid-tracking calculations.

"It is very important that we develop accurate ways to predict where asteroids are going to strike, because even small ones can cause a great deal of damage," Hashimoto said.

For example, he noted, a comet or meteorite a mere 197 feet (60 meters) wide is thought to have caused the Tunguska event of 1908.

That blast, which flattened large swaths of Siberian forest, was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

By contrast, Itokawa is about 984 feet (300 meters) wide. If that rock hit Earth, it would cause an explosion about 150,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

"Pristine" Recovery

The Japanese agency will get international help tracking Hayabusa's re-entry, noted Donald K. Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program based in Pasadena, California.

"The entrance of the Hayabusa spacecraft into the Earth's atmosphere will be tracked before entry by ground-based optical telescopes in an effort to verify the software that has recently been developed by JAXA," he said.

In addition, Yeomans said, ground-based telescopes around the world will watch for the sample-return capsule to help ensure its safe recovery.

Any samples from Itokawa would be a huge boon to science, JAXA's Hashimoto said, because they would be the first "pristine" pieces of asteroid ever recovered.

"We are not sure what we will learn until we have had a chance to analyze it," Hashimoto said, "but at the very least it will teach us many things about the makeup of Itokawa."
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.