Thursday, May 14, 2015

Japanese Spacecraft Will Not Fly By an Asteroid

Artist’s concept of the Procyon spacecraft. Credit: JAXA

It's been a month since the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced its plans to fly by asteroid 2000 DP107, but it's not going to happen. An experimental suitcase-sized space probe launched as a secondary payload with Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission in December will miss an encounter with an asteroid early next year, according to Japanese scientists. The Procyon spacecraft blasted off Dec. 3, 2014, with the Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return mission, which aims to collect rock specimens from a carbon-rich asteroid and return them to Earth in 2020. The spacecraft's ion engines ceased working in mid-March. The scientists think that a tiny metal fragment wandered into the space between the two electrical grids used for accelerating the ionized fuel, preventing the engine from working properly. However, the spacecraft is still functioning.

Scientists at the University of Tokyo and JAXA designed the 143-pound (65-kilogram) Procyon spacecraft to fly by a different target than Hayabusa 2’s destination, demonstrating that a compact probe can return valuable data millions of miles away from Earth.

Shaped like a cube roughly 2 feet (60 centimeters) across, Procyon targeted a flyby of asteroid 2000 DP107, an object spanning a half-mile (800 meters) across with its own smaller moon.

But the mission ran into trouble, and ground controllers raced against a deadline to recover the spacecraft’s ion engine before the end of April, when Procyon needed to adjust its trajectory to reach the asteroid 120 million miles from Earth next year.

The deep space maneuver with the ion propulsion system was intended to send the spacecraft back toward Earth for a gravity assist in December. Earth’s gravity would then slingshot the probe toward its target in May 2016.

The $240 million Hayabusa 2 mission is on track to reach its target — asteroid 1999 JU3 — in June 2018 for a year-and-a-half of surveys, mapping and daring touch-and-go descents to pick up rock fragments from the body’s surface. The craft will also drop a quartet of landers to bounce across the asteroid to study the object up close.

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