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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #129: May 13, 2003

Japan sends rocket to retrieve asteroid sample

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

"Japan sends rocket to retrieve asteroid sample"
(The Associated Press) CTV


Perhaps some may be inspired by the poetic name they have given to the mission, "Muse-C." The Muses are the Greek goddesses who preside over the arts and sciences and inspire those who excel at these pursuits. Unfortunately, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) managing the mission has been reported to deny that it was named with such a notion, that it is simply an acronym for "Mu Space Engineering Spacecraft" where Mu is the model name, representing the twelfth character in the Greek alphabet, of a rocket used for the project.

In realizing the mission plan, Japan has launched a spacecraft named afterwards "Hayabusa" (falcon) on a four and half year journey aiming to land and collect soil samples on an asteroid, and bring them back to earth for analysis.

According to ISAS, there are four major space-engineering tasks in this mission. They are, Electric Propulsion, Autonomous Navigation Technique, Technique of Collecting Samples from an Asteroid, and Returning to Earth.

Electric propulsion is commonly called an ion engine where ionized propellant (Xenon in this craft) is ionized and accelerated in an electric field and expelled. It is a very efficient engine in space but cannot generate enough thrust in high gravities such as lifting off from Earth. Autonomous Navigation would not only make the journey more efficient, but as radio waves would take more than ten minutes reach there, the system was devised to for the craft to perform delicate maneuvers of landing and sample collecting on its own.

Landing and sample gathering are very complex and delicate challenges. A landing on an asteroid was performed once by a US craft, but while acknowledging its significance, the opportunity came as an unexpected bonus upon completing all the planned tasks. Muse-C mission is the very first attempt for humans to send a probe and bring back a chunk of an asteroid, in fact bringing back any extraterrestrial material since the Apollo's 30 years ago.

All this sounds very technical, and certainly it is. But look at it with socio-political common sense. Are there many countries in the world that could even imagine tackling such a venture? And is there any country in the world having the capability of undertaking such a feat while not carrying aggressive weapons such as nuclear bombs or ballistic missiles? And who is claiming that Japan is a militaristic nation?

There is actually a romantic aspect to the mission. During the landing maneuver, the craft releases a target marker approximately 10 centimeters in diameter. On it carries a list of names of 877,490 people from 149 countries and regions, of which 485,453 are Americans. The names were collected through a campaign dubbed "Let's meet your Little Prince!," the idea derived from "Le Petit Prince" by Saint-Exupery, a story of a boy living on an asteroid.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications