Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy Reappears After Losing its Tail Behind the Sun
Image Credit: Alex Cherney, TWAN

Comet Lovejoy lost its tail while passing behind the Sun on 15 December 2011, but reappeared and has grown a new tail. Such a close encounter was likely to destroy the comet, astronomers had thought.

The comet, known as C/2011 W3, was discovered by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Brisbane, Australia.

It is visible in the predawn sky in the Southern Hemisphere.

Valentine’s Day 2011

Valentine from Space
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Tempel 1
Comet 9P Tempel 1
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

The Stardust spacecraft is set to rendezvous with comet Tempel 1. It’s Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2011.

Previously, we discussed the StardustNExT mission.

We will follow the encounter with pictures and text as they arrive. Rendezvous with comet Tempel 1 will occur at approximately 9:37 PM Phoenix time (0437 UTC Tuesday morning).

Live coverage of the Tempel 1 encounter will begin at 9:30 PM Phoenix time on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The closest approach will be approximately 200 kilometers. In 2004, Stardust flew through the tail of comet Wild 2 and sent a capsule of material back to Earth.

The mission team expects to begin receiving images on the ground starting at around 1:00 AM Phoenix time (0800 UTC) on 15 February. A news conference previously planned for 11:00 AM Phoenix time will be held later in the day, to allow scientists more time to analyze the data and images. A new time will be announced later in the morning.

Tempel 1 from Stardust
Comet Tempel from Stardust NExT taken 18-19 January 2011
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The latest report is that the StardustNExT spacecraft has taken a hit, but the thrusters responded and reoriented the craft

The most recent report is that the closest approach was 181 kilometers. 10 percent after 12 years in space orbiting the solar system many times.

The spacecraft is now back in cruise mode. The images have been collected and we are now several hours form beginning to receive the 72 high resolution images.

The JPL Deep Space Network (DSN) is scheduled to download the data. The current receiver is the 70 meter dish in Australia and the download rate will be about 16K bits per second.

Tempel 1
Image of Tempel 1 42 hours before encounter.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

In about an hour, the DSN in Madrid will acquire the Stardust spacecraft and begin downloading the 72 images. It is now 10:30 PM Phoenix time.

We now have carrier only configuration of Stardust being received in Madrid. Time is 10:57 PM Phoenix time (0557 UTC 15 February).

In about 10 minutes, Stardust will begin downloading the images from the fly-by.

At the present time, we expect the images to begin downloading about 1:00 AM. The first images should be available about 1:45 AM.

Tempel 1
Tempel 1 was 2,200 kilometers from StardustNExT and Closest Encounter. Most Recently Released Image.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

StardustNExT images are being posted at

The following images are from closest approach.

Tempel 1 image 35
Tempel 1 Image 35
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Tempel 1 image 35
Tempel 1 Image 35
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Tempel 1 image 35
Tempel 1 Image 40
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Hayabusa – Live Blog

Hayabusa (The Falcon) released the re-entry capsule three hours prior to re-entry, at 3:51 AM Phoenix time (6:51 AM EDT, 10:51 AM UTC, and 19:51 JST).

It is now 6:00 AM in Phoenix, and I will be following the live video feed listed below.

  • Live Video – around 13:45 – 13:55 UTC = 6:45 – 6:55 AM Phoenix Time 13 June 2010
  • Post-event video – around 13:55 – 15:00 UTC = 6:55 – 8:00 AM Phoenix Time
  • Post-landing video – expected around 16:00 – 17:00 UTC = 9:00 – 10:00 AM Phoenix Time

NASA’s DC-8 aircraft, which captured the Stardust images and videos, is now in pursuit of the Hayabusa capsule.

StarDust Return
Stardust Re-entry Fireball 2006
Image Credit: Dr. Mike Taylor,
Utah State University

Previous NSS Phoenix blog entries about Hayabusa can be found at Hayabusa Re-Entry and Hayabusa – Here She Comes – The Little Spacecraft that Could.

Additional Sources:

So now we wait for news. The U-Stream video feed is live.

The JAXA control center reports that the re-entry capsule is now within 30,000 km of re-entry

Earlier tonight, Hayabusa was captured by the Subaru Telescope at 170,000 km from the Earth. The spacecraft is the small dot in the blue circle. Everything else is blurred due to tracking the spacecraft.

Image Credit: Subaru Telescope

At 6:27 AM Phoenix time, everything appears nominal. We are 24 minutes from re-entry.

Ten minutes to re-entry

Five minutes, and we should start receiving video from the NASA DC-8 flying over Woomera.

The Ustream video feed:

Image Credit: UStream video

We do have a report from Japan that a fireball has been seen.

UStream has the fireball. Both re-entry capsule and the Hayabusa spacecraft. The UStreamreplay is here.

Re-entry 01
Image Credit: UStream video

Re-entry 02
Image Credit: UStream video

At 7:11 AM Phoenix time (20 minutes after start of re-entry, we are waiting for word from the ground of the parachute deployment and landing, which should occur about now.

We have confirmation of telemetry from the capsule.

In the meantime, here is another image from the re-entry

Re-entry 03
Image Credit: UStream video

Twitter: “Helicopters will track beacon to locate capsule, mark its GPS coords. Then they will wait for daylight to go retrieve it.”

Congratulations to JAXA on an incredible mission. Considering the obstacles that have been overcome so far, the capsule will contain material from the asteroid Itokawa.

And here is eye-candy for all you that have followed the saga. Visible in the time lapse image is the re-entry capsule in front, and the Hayabusa spacecraft trailing it. The spacecraft and capsule enter at lower left. The top trace is the disintegrating spacecraft and the lower, longer trace is the re-entry capsule. [ed note: the original image was published reversed left to right]

Time Lapse
Time Lapse image of the re-entry capsule and the Hayabusa spacecraft.
Image Credit:

This image is from the NASA DC-8 mission tracking the hyper-velocity re-entry of Hayabusa. The capsule is the bright dot to the right and below the spaceraft as it disintegrates in the atmosphere over Woomera Australia.

Spacecraft Re-entry
Disintegration of Hayabusa on Re-entry
Image Credit:

YouTube has a low resolution video of the re-entry. Amazing, nonetheless.

Ames Research Center has now released their video of the re-entry. This is high resolution.

AT 9:00 AM Phoenix time, JAXA announced that is had located the capsule. The search for the heat shield, which separated from the capsule after re-entry is ongoing.

The Asteroid Explorer “HAYABUSA” successfully separated its capsule at 7:51 p.m. on June 13 (Japan Standard Time, the following times and dates are all JST,) and re-entered the atmosphere to complete its mission operation at 10:51 p.m. After the landing, a helicopter searched for the capsule in the Woomera Prohibited Area, and at around 11:56 p.m. on the 13th, its location was confirmed.

At 3:00 PM Phoenix time, the sun is just rising in Western Australia. Operations to retrieve the Hayabusa capsule, and continue the search for the heat shield, should be getting under way.

Hayabusa Re-Entry

Hayabusa Return Logo
Woomera Prohibited Area

Government of Australia’s document closing the
Woomera Prohibited Area during the re-entry
of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return vehicle.

Image Credit: Government of Australia

Hayabusa is expected to re-enter the atmosphere over western Australia 6:51 AM Phoenix Time (13:51 UTC) Sunday 13 June 2010, following a seven year journey to the asteroid Itokawa and back.

Hayabusa Trajectory
Hayabusa Trajectory with Asteroid Itokawa as of 29 August 2009.

Image Credit: JAXA

Hayabusa was launched on 9 May 2003 by the M-V-5 Rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center on Kogashima on the southern tip of Japan. The spacecraft arrived in the vicinity of the asteroid Itokawa on 12 September 2005. During the descent to the surface, damage to the thruster system occurred, and eventually all propellant was lost, including that required for the return trip.

On 25 April 2007, the homeward journey began with the firing of all three of the chambers in the ion engine. During 2008, the spacecraft reached its furthest distance from the Earth. During 2009, there was an anomaly with the ion engine, and the two remaining chambers were used to continue the voyage. Currently, only one chamber remains operational, and has been used for all remaining guidance and mid-course corrections. Due to the small thrust, firings as long as 6 hours are required for even the small delta-v changes.

NASA has made the following commitment to cover the return of the spacecraft:

An attempt will be made to provide a live video feed of the Hayabusa Re-Entry in the minutes around the re-entry at 13:51 UT, Sunday June 13. The video will be chosen from cameras operated onboard NASA’s DC-8 Airborne Laboratory by Jesse Carpenter and Greg Merkes of NASA Ames Research Center, or those operated by Ron Dantowitz, Marek Kozubal, James Brietmeyer and Brigitte Berman of Clay Center Observatory, or those operated by Mike Taylor and Jonathan Snively of Utah State University. Please note that such downlinks have proven very difficult in past missions. The Hayabusa re-entry will be fainter than that of ATV-1 “Jules Verne” in 2008. Also, the video feed will be transmitted by the DC-8 aircraft via INMARSAT and may not be of high quality. Large volumes of traffic on this website may hinder watching this live feed. For that reason, shortly after the re-entry, we plan to upload higher quality video, first via the INMARSAT uplink on our way back, and later, after we land at Melbourne, via an internet communication.

Hayabusa re-entry diagram

Hayabusa Re-Entry Schematic

Image Credit: Tetsuya Yamada, JAXA

The NASA page on hyper-velocity re-entries is here.

The 40-cm diameter capsule will be detached from the main spacecraft when passing the Moon’s orbit, put in a 5 rotations/second spin. Depending on the time of release, it will have moved about 2-5 km ahead of the main spacecraft when reaching atmospheric interface at 200 km altitude.

Below 40 km, the capsule will have been slowed down enough by the atmosphere to no longer emit visible light. Once the capsule reaches 10 km altitude, the heat shield is separated and falls to the ground (see figure above, courtesy of Tetsuya Yamada, JAXA). The exact point of where the heat shield is released (and the parachute is opened) has an uncertainty of about 100 x 15 km. To help recover the heat shield, the trajectory of the capsule is determined from the meteor observations.

The Sample Return Capsule will be floated to the ground by means of a parachute. Due to upper atmosphere winds, the capsule can end up quite far from the point of release. To be able to recover the capsule, the parachute is given a high reflectivity for radar signals, and the capsule has a radio responder.

NSS Phoenix expects to begin live blog of the re-entry Sunday morning around 6:00 AM Phoenix Time (9:00 AM EDT and 13:00 UTC).

  • Live Video – around 13:45 – 13:55 UTC = 6:45 – 6:55 AM Phoenix Time 13 June 2010
  • Post-event video – around 13:55 – 15:00 UTC = 6:55 – 8:00 AM Phoenix Time
  • Post-landing video – expected around 16:00 – 17:00 UTC = 9:00 – 10:00 AM Phoenix Time

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.

Falcon Second Stage Over Australia

Approximately 60 minutes after launch, the second stage of the Falcon rocket produced the following spectacular results.

As anyone who watched the launch will recall, the second stage began a slow roll as it approached the end of its burn into orbit. There was additional unburned fuel aboard, which can be used on future flights to raise the orbit, change inclination and perform other maneuvers.

It seems that this fuel was being vented while the rocket passed over Australia, and the spiral pattern was created as the rocket continued its slow roll.

Of course, this has proven a field day for uninformed UFO enthusiasts, and the media went straight to them for something sensational to sell before checking with Space-X or others who might have a real clue what was going on.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, has more information on the media frenzy and what really happened.