The country that invented the Walkman may be back on track to burnish its image as a technological pioneer. Right now, more than 4.7 million miles from Earth, is a revolutionary spacecraft that could be the future of interstellar travel. Japan's space program, JAXA, confirmed on June 10 they had successfully unfurled the world's first solar sail a spacecraft that uses the velocity of sunlight to propel it. Then, just three days later, Japan announced what could be an even more impressive accomplishment: a spacecraft that left Earth seven years ago had returned home. Before brilliantly burning up over Australia, the ship ejected a soccer-ball-sized pod a modest container that may contain the first fragments of an asteroid ever brought to earth and provide clues about the origins of our planet. Not bad for a spacecraft running three years behind schedule and without three of its four engines.
These space exploits couldn't have come at a better time for Japan's space agency. With a stagnant economy and massive public debt, the new Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to make cuts to Japan's sprawling bureaucracy, and JAXA will surely come under scrutiny. During the previous administration, the Wall Street Journal reported that the government revitalization unit recommended in April the space agency start raising more money from the private sector. Before that, JAXA requested almost $19 million to develop a follow-up asteroid project, but the Hatoyama administration only allocated a meager $330,000. These were not encouraging signs for the future of the agency, and this from the Prime Minister whose wife once claimed aliens took her soul to Venus in a triangular spacecraft.
The solar sail may look low-tech, resembling a silver tarpaulin with a hole in the middle, but its successful mission could help future trips to the outer reaches of our solar system. JAXA's Interplanetary Kite-Craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun, better known as IKAROS, will be the first spaceship powered without any rocket fuel. Unlike its mythological namesake, in which the Greek prisoner Icarus flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, Japan's IKAROS will use the force of the sun's photons against its sail to propel it closer and closer to the sun. IKAROS' first stop is Venus, and then hopefully the unmanned spacecraft will push past the planet to the far side of the sun. Ships like IKAROS powered by solar sails may not be the fastest spacecrafts, but they're much cheaper than rocket-fuelled ones. Makoto Miwada, a JAXA spokesman, says the IKAROS test will be half the price of a typical large satellite launch. "This satellite is rather cheap," he says.
If all this sounds like science fiction that's probably because until recently it was. Solar sails have been featured in science fiction since the early 1960s and even made an appearance in James Cameron's Avatar. The goal of the IKAROS project is to test the feasibility of using sunlight to maneuver a spaceship, and a lot could still go wrong. With the sail's membrane as thin as 0.0075 mm less than one-sixth of the thickness of a newspaper page it's extremely fragile, and nothing like this has been done before. Already though, the Japanese succeeded in unfurling the sail in space, something that American groups have failed at doing in two previous attempts, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In this case, JAXA weighted the corners of the sail. The slow spin of the spacecraft caused centrifugal force to open the sail to full extension.
Japan's second space feat last week points more toward the past than the future, back some 4.6 billion years to the formation of our solar system. JAXA launched the Hayabusa in 2003. The space probe took more than two years to reach its target, the Itokawa asteroid, considered a "near-Earth" asteroid. It was only about 185 million miles away when the Hayabusa arrived. Since then things haven't exactly gone smoothly. There was a fuel leak, a tool for collecting rock samples that failed to deploy and a 50-day communications blackout, and by the end of the mission three of craft's four ion engines had broken. It even missed its initial window home and had to return to Earth three years late. With all the delays, the Hayabusa broke the record for the longest voyage in space.
Despite the glitches along the way, the Hayabusa project is already a landmark mission. The Hayabusa's journey was the first ever round-trip to a celestial body other than the moon. The craft has determined Itokawa's size, shape, density and approximate makeup. Still, the real boon was bringing the first asteroid samples home, where more detailed analysis could take place. The Hayabusa disintegrated as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere on June 13, creating a brilliant display over central Australia "like fireworks" says JAXA's Miwada. But a few hours before burning up, it successfully ejected a small pod that likely contains the first asteroid fragments brought back to Earth. The capsule was located in the Australian outback and returned to Japan on June 17, still apparently sealed. Miwada says it could take months to know exactly what's in there; after seven years of waiting, no one wants to risk contamination. It will be disassembled in a special isolation system so it's not exposed to the atmosphere. Says Miwada: "We may find many particles, and we have to analyze every one and judge whether it's an earth particle or a space particle."
Scientists at both NASA and JAXA say it's likely the Hayabusa has returned at least some asteroid material, and scientists don't need much to determine its exact composition. Asteroids are among the least changed objects in the solar system, and understanding what they're made of can give scientists clues to the origins of our planet. "We'll be looking at leftover debris from the early solar-system formation process," says Donald Yeomans, a manager at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office. "[Asteroids] offer an excellent window into the chemical mix and temperature environment at the time the planets formed."
Miwada says locating the capsule in the Australian bush was a "special moment" for the JAXA team. And it's not just the scientists who are proud. In Japan, the public has started to refer to the Hayabusa as Hayabusakun, adding an affectionate suffix to the spacecraft normally reserved for boys or young men. At a JAXA office in Tokyo, according to the daily Yomiuri Shimbun, one visitor wrote, "I'm very happy I feel like my son has come back home." With a moribund economy and another new Prime Minister, the JAXA accomplishments over the past 10 days have given a country a reason to look away from its earthly problems and get satisfaction from the heavens. As another visitor to the JAXA office wrote, "Sick of gloomy days caused by the recession, Hayabusa's story has made me really happy. From tomorrow I'll be able to work more cheerfully." It's no wonder, then, that Prime Minister Kan said last week he's considering raising the budget for Hayabusa II.