For millions of American high-school students, early June means long hours studying for final exams. But for three lucky teenagers, getting a passing grade in their astronomy class meant traveling halfway around the world—from Massachusetts to the Australian Outback—to work side-by-side with a NASA-led expedition of space scientists.
The researchers were there to study the brilliant fireball created June 13 when Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft, finally coming home after seven years and 3 billion miles in interplanetary space, slammed into Earth’s atmosphere at more than 7 miles per second. Hayabusa had made several landings on the asteroid Itokawa in November 2005, and researchers are hoping that bits of the asteroid’s surface will be found sealed inside the spacecraft’s sample-return capsule.
The asteroid, measuring 540 meters by 270 meters by 210 meters, is quite porous and made up of pieces ranging from small gravel to big blocks and boulders up to 50 meters in length. The mission marked the first attempt to return samples from an asteroid.
The Japan Exploration Aerospace Agency, or JAXA, is heading the Hayabusa project, which was launched May 9, 2003. NASA is supporting the mission.
Getting to take part in Hayabusa’s return was the culmination of months of work for students James Breitmeyer and Yiannis Karavas, both 17, and Brigitte Berman, 16. They attend the Dexter and Southfield Schools in Brookline, Massachusetts, where Ronald Dantowitz and Marek Kozubal from the schools’ Clay Center Observatory helped them build tracking platforms crammed with high-end imaging cameras; ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light spectrographs; and an IMAX-quality high-definition video system for recording the reentry.
Most of this high-tech gear was installed on NASA’s DC-8 research aircraft in Palmdale, California, alongside other instruments brought by researchers from Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and several U.S. institutions. The plane—with the students on board—then headed to Australia.
During Hayabusa’s hypervelocity homecoming, the jet cruised at an altitude of 41,000 feet near the spacecraft’s landing zone in the Woomera Protected Area, a desolate, 50,000-square-mile military test area about 500 miles northwest of Adelaide. As the spacecraft made its fiery reentry, the scientists recorded the brightness and spectra of the sample capsule and pieces of the disintegrating main craft.
“The students did their jobs well and have been superb representatives of our schools to NASA and to the international science community,” notes Dantowitz, adding that one of the student-run DXSF cameras streamed live video of the spacecraft reentry directly from the aircraft window to the world via satellite.
The remains of the spacecraft will now will be transported to Japan for analysis and the opening of the sample collection chamber.
“JAXA’s Hayabusa mission has opened up a whole new world to us and now we have many more questions than answers, which makes this a very exciting time to be in planetary science,” said Paul Abell, a research scientist at the Tucson, Arizona–based Planetary Science Instutite, who was part of the recovery operation and a member of the team that investigated the asteroid’s composition.
For more information and an image of the Hayabusa reentry: