NASA gets front row seat for fiery "man-made meteor" reentry

NASA said JAXA’s Hayabusa is expected to be the second fastest man-made object to return to Earth

NASA said that a group of its astronomers will have a front row seat in Australia to watch the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa's high-speed, fiery return to Earth.  Hayabusa is bringing with it a hunk of the asteroid Itokawa.

Hayabusa is expected to land in an unpopulated area of Australia at approximately midnight locally, or 7 am PDT, on Sunday, June 13. Earlier this week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said it successfully completed the guidance of the Hayabusa spacecraft, so that it will land in the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia. 

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"The capsule that protects the asteroid sample will be only 6,500 feet ahead of the rest of the spacecraft, which will break into numerous pieces, essentially making it a man-made meteor," said Peter Jenniskens, the observation campaign's principal investigator and a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in a statement. "Hayabusa is hurtling toward Earth at an immense speed, comparable to that of an asteroid impact."

JAXA's Hayabusa is expected to be the second fastest man-made object to return to Earth.  NASA's Stardust sample return capsule set the record re-entry speed of 7.95 miles per second in January 2006. 

Some 30 NASA astronomers will be flying onboard a specially equipped DC-8 with instruments that can monitor Hayabusa's reentry. The scientists specifically want to study what happens when the spacecraft and asteroid sample return capsule heat up high in the atmosphere. When Hayabusa reaches an altitude of 190,000 feet, its heat shield will experience temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while the gas surrounding the capsule will reach 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- hotter than the surface of the sun.

Because of what NASA called Hayabusa's unique heat shield material, shape and the tremendous interplanetary re-entry speed of 7.58 miles per second, scientists expect its descent will provide new, valuable information about heat shields for computer models of re-entry conditions. 

Launched in 2003, Hayabusa successfully landed on the asteroid Itokawa in Nov. 2005.  JAXA said four observation instruments onboard the spacecraft observed Itokawa's shape, terrain, mineral composition, gravity, major element composition.   It is hoped that Hayabusa actually collected samples from the asteroid because the experiments it was to carry out largely appeared to fail.  Still JAXA expects that the spacecraft did gather some surface debris in its mining tool.  

This isn't the first time NASA has sent an airborne lab to watch a spacecraft reentry. NASA astronomers made similar studies from for the September 2008 re-entry of the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle "Jules Verne," as well as the Stardust sample return re-entry airborne campaigns, the agency stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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