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Hayabusa Spacecraft Makes Asteroid Landing

Japan's Hayabusa space probe landed successfully on an asteroid named Itokawa on Wednesday. The asteroid is named after Hideo Itokawa, father of rocket science in Japan; it orbits the sun between Earth and Mars. It is just 2,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide.


(Hayabusa approaches asteroid Itokawa)

Japan's space agency had said earlier that Hayabusa had descended to 56 feet from the surface, at which point ground control lost contact with the probe for about three hours. After analyzing data, the agency said the probe landed on the asteroid within about 99 feet of the initial landing target.


(Shadow of Hayabusa on Itakowa asteroid)

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003; it has until early December to leave orbit and begin its journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian Outback in June 2007.

As far as I know, the first story about landing a craft on an asteroid was written by Edward Drax in 1931. In The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, minor navigation problems result in a landing on Eros:

"I had not seen it as soon as I had seen Mars, on account of its being so near to the line of the Sun... I couldn't make out anything, as most of the orb was in darkness... I got into the darkness at last and switched on my engines, and flew till I came to the very first edge of twilight that gave light enough for me to land... And that was how I came to make a bad landing, with my wheels deep down in a marsh...

A more technical approach to landing on an asteroid was completed by Robert Heinlein. In his 1939 short story Misfit, young men without a trade were given another chance in the Cosmic Construction Corps. One job was to make a livable space habitat on selected asteroids.

He walked over by the lookouts at stereoscopes and radar tanks and peered up at the star-flecked blackness. Three cigarettes later the lookout nearest him called out.
"Light ho!"
"Where away?"
His mate read the exterior dials of the stereoscope. "Plus point two, abaft one point three, slight drift astern." He shifted to radar and added, "Range seven nine oh four three."
"Does that check?"
"Could be, Captain. What is her disk?" came the Navigator's muffled voice from under the hood.
The first lookout hurriedly twisted the knobs of his instrument, but the Captain nudged him aside. "I'll do this, son." He fitted his face to the double eye guards and surveyed a little silvery sphere, a tiny moon. Carefully he brought two illuminated cross-hairs up until they were exactly tangent to the upper and lower limbs of the disk. "Mark!"
The reading was noted and passed to the Navigator, who shortly ducked out from under the hood.
"That's our baby, Captain"
...McCoy forced them to lie down throughout the ensuing two hours. Short shocks of rocket blasts alternated with nauseating weightlessness. Then the blowers stopped and check valves clicked into their seats. The ship dropped free for a few moments -- a final quick blast -- five seconds of falling, and a short, light, grinding bump. A single bugle note came over the announcer, and the blowers took up their hum.

The NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft was launched on Feb. 17, 1996, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid in February 2000 and then the first to land on an asteroid in February 2001. The asteroid was 433 Eros. NEAR is short for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. Read more about the real-life landing at Space.com. See also this Proposal to move an asteroid.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 11/24/2005)

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