Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, October 03, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake pt. X: Hayabusa

Just over half a year has passed since the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11th (aka the Day Everything Changed). Here at Ye Olde Academy, we've just had a presentation by one of the experts associated with the Hayabusa program. Naturally, the two events have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and yet...I can't help feeling a strange sense of oneness, a spiritual connection between the two, as if one were a sort of metaphor for the other.

(Image from the NASA website)

In case you have no idea what Hayabusa was, it was a space probe that was a wholly Japanese project. It was launched in 2003 on an ambitious mission to study an asteroid at point blank range, make surface contact, and then return to earth with samples. Other probes sent by the ESA and NASA had made close surveys of asteroids before, but this was the first that was intended to bring back actual asteroid material for study. It was quite an undertaking, especially considering the probe was a wholly Japanese design using locally-developed technology.

As it turned out, it could have been called a comedy of errors. The fact was that it was originally intended to study a totally different asteroid, but problems with development of the rocket booster intended to launch it delayed it too long. Another potentially crippling launch delay happened when it was discovered that the company that had made the rocket booster had (by accident or design) used the wrong materials for at least some of the O-ring sealants, which then had to be replaced. When the probe finally got into space, its solar power system was badly damaged by a solar flare, crippling it and reducing the efficiency of its ion engines. Hayabusa arrived at the asteroid (later named Itokawa) as planned, though way behind schedule, and established a position following it in orbit around the sun. However, while conducting the initial mapping runs, the probe's gyroscopic maneuvering system failed, meaning the thrusters had to be used for all navigation. Fuel limitations meant that a lot of plans then had to be scrubbed. A conflict between the commands from Earth and the probe's automated systems resulted in the Minerva mini-lander missing the asteroid and spinning off into space. When the probe itself attempted its planned point-blank pass to scoop up a sample of material, its sampling arm failed to deploy. Instead, the probe was landed directly on the asteroid surface and its ion jets fired in a desperate attempt to kick up some dust and catch it in its sample container. Without knowing whether the move was successful or not, the crew ordered Hayabusa to return home. It finally came limping back to Earth in 2010 (a couple of years late) with only one of its four ion drives still functioning at reduced power and its electronics all but dead. Nevertheless, it released the re-entry pod with the sample container as planned shortly before burning up in the atmosphere. The pod survived the plunge and made a landing in Australia, where it was recovered. When the pod was brought back to Japan and opened, it appeared empty, but just when it seemed all hope was lost, closer scrutiny revealed tiny particles of dust inside that were clearly not terrestrial in origin. Despite it all, Hayabusa was a success.

A lesser crew may very well have given up hope and scrubbed the mission at any one of several failure points. Instead, they stubbornly kept on going, using the resources at hand to turn defeat into victory. Indeed, you can't help admiring the Japanese staff of the Hayabusa project both for their stoic ingenuity and for their tenacity.

And as the March earthquake disaster showed so plainly, that tenacity is present in the population as a whole. Despite the unbelievable scale of the tragedy and the impact it has had on all our lives here in the Land of the Rising Sun, it's really just one more setback to work around. In the end, Japan will forge ahead.


  • There are times one works too hard to force something to work and other times relentless dedication pays off... Which are actually two viewpoints of the very same act. What a delicious reward for them, and what great group perspective, this consistent willingness to change the plan and embrace what is when the "plan" didn't go as planned. Thanks for this metaphorical "what if?". :)

    By Blogger JennyBird, at 9:38 PM  

  • This is something that I have admired about all of those who I have seen on various reports on the TV.

    Thanks for the summary of this space mission - they must have been Star Trek fans...

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 11:16 PM  

  • We visited Matsushima a month ago and were impressed by the way they have hung on and the progress made. Mostly, though, by the attitudes of the people up there - both strength and gratitude.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:46 AM  

  • Now you are just teasing me man, last post made me think of cars and now this one about motorcycles.

    :) Anyway a nice story that I had not heard.

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 10:23 AM  

  • That is an interesting story. One wonders what kind of political baloney might result from a similarly difficult US mission.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 7:56 AM  

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