This may not come as a huge surprise, but it’s nice to hear the Japanese Hayabusa mission has been officially certified by Guinness World Records as the first spacecraft to return to Earth carrying material from an asteroid.
Also, as an added bonus, the plucky probe has also been recognized as “the first spacecraft to lift off from an asteroid.”
If I had a choice, I’d also give it an award for “most unlucky space mission that got the job done despite being fried, bumped, spun, lost and then found again.” After all, Hayabusa wasn’t your average “successful” mission; it was an epic journey of adventure, mishaps and human ingenuity.
In 2005, the probe arrived at asteroid Itokawa, a 500 meter-wide potato-shaped “rubble pile.” But even before the rendezvous, Hayabusa’s bad luck streak had slowed it down. After being launched in 2003, the probe was hit by the largest solar flare on record. The solar radiation caused extensive damage to the probe’s solar panels, reducing the amount of energy being supplied to its ion engines.
Despite the solar sucker punch, Hayabusa arrived at the “S-type” asteroid, just a couple of months later than planned. But bad luck continued to dog the probe.
During approach to the asteroid, Hayabusa was supposed to drop a small robotic lander on the asteroid’s surface. Sadly, during the lander’s release, Hayabusa’s automated proximity system caused the probe to move away from the asteroid, ensuring the little lander spun into space, rather than land on Itokawa’s surface.
Also, as the mission called for the collection of material from the asteroid’s surface, mission controllers commanded Hayabusa to “land” on (or more accurately, “dock with”) the asteroid. Although this feat was accomplished, the asteroid dust collection system malfunctioned and the pellet that was supposed to fire, impacting the surface to kick up dust for collection by the probe’s equipment, didn’t.
Despite this setback, JAXA scientists remained positive, hoping dust had drifted into the equipment regardless by the probe’s hull bumping and rubbing against the asteroid. Other problems included fuel leaks, thruster failure and communication blackouts.
But on June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth three years later than planned, releasing its sample return capsule. The spacecraft gloriously burned up during reentry over Australia as the sample return capsule landed safely in the Australian Outback.
And the best thing is that the capsule did indeed contain dust particles from asteroid Itokawa.
Guinness World Records decided to recognize the probe a year after Hayabusa’s atmospheric reentry brought its six billion mile, seven year interplanetary space odyssey to an end.
Granted, many space endeavors are awarded Guinness World Records, they are, after all, in the business of doing things that have never been done before. But it’s nice to see Hayabusa and the Japanese Space Agency get this special honor — it was a mission that captivated the world.