Hayabusa – Here She Comes – The Little Spacecraft that Could

Hayabusa Spacecraft Returns to Earth
Image Credit: JAXA
Hayabusa Final Approach
Hayabusa Final Approach
Image Credit: JAXA


As previously noted (Space News on 31 May), Japan’s asteroid visiting, highly crippled, out of fuel spacecraft Hayabusa is destined to return to Earth, possibly bearing material from the asteroid Itokawa.

JAXA would like to announce that TCM-4 operation was successfully completed (15:00 June 9th, 2010 (JST)). By this operation, Hayabusa spacecraft was precisely guided to WPA in Australia

This is one of those “Mission Impossible” stories. While it will not rank with Apollo 13 (pace Tom Hanks), nevertheless, it is a spacecraft that never said never. There are no humans on board this intrepid craft. Aboard the craft are only the bits and bytes uploaded to the control computer by the Japanese scientists during the past seven years.

Meanwhile, our French spacecraft enthusiast community is avidly watching the approaching return.

Hayabusa was launched on 9 May 2003. Here is the timetable of this intrepid craft:

  • May 9, 2003 Launched by the M-V-5 Rocket from Kagoshima Space Center.
  • May 27, 2003 Ion Engine operation started.
  • May 19, 2004 Orbit transfer using the Electric Propelled Delta-V Earth Gravity Assist
  • July 29, 2005 Performed the Star Tracker imaging of Itokawa.
  • September 12, 2005 Arrived at Itokawa. (about 20km away)
  • September 30, 2005 Arrived at the Home Position (about 7km away).
  • November 12, 2005 Released the probing robot ”Minerva”.
  • November 20, 2005 Performed the first touch down and release of the target marker with 880,000 autographs inside.
  • November 26, 2005 Performed the second touchdown.
  • December 8, 2005 Lost communication with the earth due to operation rupture by fuel leakage.
  • January 26, 2006 Resumed communication and operation.
  • January 18, 2007 Sample-catcher was actually transferred into the recovery capsule, and latched and sealed.
  • February, 2007 The ion engines ignited and operated again.
  • April 25, 2007 The homeward journey with an ion engine drive was started.
  • October 18, 2007 Finished first phase orbit maneuver toward Earth.
  • End of May, 2008 Reached the farthest deep space from the Earth.
  • February 4, 2009 Firing ion engine and starting second phase orbit maneuver to return to Earth.
  • November 4, 2009 Ion engine anomaly.
  • November 19, 2009 Resumed cruise by combining two partially working ion engines.
  • March 27, 2010 Finished second phase orbit maneuver toward Earth.
  • April to June, 2010 Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs)
  • June, 2010 Back to the Earth , capsule recovered.

As noted, TCMs nos 1-4 have been completed. And the final item in Hayabusa’s calendar (June, 2010 Back to the Earth , capsule recovered) awaits final judgment. I, for one, think that the craft will succeed in this element, also. How could it not.

Now the bullet point above “December 8, 2005 Lost communication with the earth due to operation rupture by fuel leakage” is one of the intriguing elements in the story. Basically, Hayabusa blew a gasket and ran out of fuel – attitude control, thruster delta-v, return to Earth capability. Certain DEATH.

Here is the story leading up to this hair raising moment in the life of a deep space vehicle.

Hayabusa – touchdown on Itokawa
Image Credit: JAXA

On the day of 27 November 2005, Yasunori Matogawa, Associate Executive Director of JAXA issued this extensive report on the activities of the spacecraft.

The basics were that Hayabusa touched down with a landing velocity of 10cm/sec. Two bullets were fired at an interval of 0.2 second to get as much of sample as possible. From Matogawa’s report we have, literally:

Shortly before 11:00 am, a trouble was detected in the chemical thruster system. In fact, the sign of trouble was seen happening during the descent phase already, but was continued of its operation by switching to backup system.

Hayabusa on its descent to Itokawa, apparently encountered difficulties. These were in addition to control problems experienced during the week prior to descent.


Read the reports and sense the anxiety. On 12 December 2005, we have the following post from Mission Control:

As has been reported, it is estimated that part of a series of attitude and orbit control commands to restore the Hayabusa from its safe-hold mode have not gone well.

In December, JAXA issued this statement:

Last November, Hayabusa suffered from a serious fuel leak immediately following its successful second touching down to the surface of Itokawa, a near Earth asteroid. Since the chemical engines were not available, the strong attitude disturbance occurred on December 8th caused the communication lost since then. According to the analysis, the chance of having the spacecraft communication resumed was found 60 to 70 percent high during a year ahead, while the spacecraft is captured well within the ground station’s antenna beam width. JAXA decided to take an alternative flight plan that makes Hayabusa return in June of 2010, three years behind the nominal schedule, assuming the spacecraft starts driving its ion engines from early 2007. In this context, the Hayabusa project team had started the rescue operation from the middle of December, 2005. (JAXA Press Release on December 14th, 2005)

And now, she had to get home. No fuel.

International Electric Propulsion
Hayabusa – International Electric Propulsion
Image Credit: JAXA

In September, 2007, JAXA received notification that the ion engine aboard Hayabusa had been awarded the prize for International Electric Propulsion .

The question on everybody’s mind was whether the prized engine could get the spacecraft home.

In October, JAXA reported that:

Hayabusa asteroid explorer had been executing the powered flight toward Earth using a single reaction wheel and the microwave discharge ion engines since April this year.

Apparently, she could.


In June of 2008, JAXA reported that:

Hayabusa spacecraft in deep space restores its energy with low activity for Earth return. On the other hand the Hayabusa operation team on the ground has just started to prepare for the capsule retrieval.

Here she comes.

JAXA reignited the ion engine of the Asteroid Explore “HAYABUSA” for a powered flight at 11:35 a.m. on February 4, 2009 (JST.)


In November 2009, JAXA reported:

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been studying measures to deal with the anomaly detected in one of the ion engines aboard the Asteroid Explorer “HAYABUSA” as reported on November 9, 2009. As a result, the project team has come up with a recovery operation plan, and the project decided to resume the operations, while carefully watching the status of the ion engines.

In January 2010, JAXA reported:

Hayabusa this week has further narrowed the closest approach distance to Earth, and the distance has become down to about 1.4 million kilometers. The out-of-plane approach direction is also on the exact path planned as the figures indicate. The fact that the spacecraft is on the path passing through the Earth gravity sphere does mean that Hayabusa has accomplished its round-trip cruise from Earth, by way of Itokawa and back to Earth.


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) would like to announce that it was issued the Authorized Return of Overseas Launch Space Object (AROLSO) for the Sample Recovery Capsule aboard the Asteroid Explorer “HAYABUSA” from the Space Licensing and Safety Office (SLASO) of the Australian Government on Friday, April 16th.

Now, all JAXA has to do is watch Hayabusa come home.

6 thoughts on “Hayabusa – Here She Comes – The Little Spacecraft that Could

  1. Pingback: The Great Challenges of “HAYABUSA” – World’s first asteroid sample return mission - | BoyRacers Online

  2. Pingback: Hayabusa – Live Blog « The National Space Society of Phoenix

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  4. Pingback: June 2010 « NSS Phoenix Space News

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