Sunday, July 4, 2010

JAXA and Japan in space exploration

This will not be a significant negative issue for JAXA and Japan will be a part of space exploration and technology... achievements will be and must be international.

"In a Space Probe’s Journey, a Test for Japan"


Hiroko Tabuchi

Ju;y 1st, 2010

The New York Times

The Japanese are calling it a miracle. The Hayabusa space probe returned last month from a seven-year, 382-million-mile round trip to an asteroid, giving a much-needed confidence boost to a country worried that its technological prowess might be waning.

But Japan is still holding its breath. Did the mission accomplish one of its main objectives?

Preliminary tests on a capsule retrieved from the probe have shown no signs of the precious samples of the 4.6-billion-year-old asteroid that the Hayabusa was supposed to retrieve — samples that scientists around the globe had hoped would hold new clues about the formation of the solar system.

Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA, followed up with better news. Scientists had detected traces of vaporized material inside the container, some of it possibly from the asteroid, Itokawa, which goes around the sun on an elliptical orbit that crosses the paths of both Earth and Mars.

“Hayabusa capsule yields gas,” declared one newspaper headline. “Vapor gives us hope,” read another.

The June 13 return of the Hayabusa, which drew heavily on Japanese industrial expertise, has fanned hopes that this nation has not lost its edge in technology and manufacturing. The American journal Science has called Hayabusa — the Earth’s first visit to an asteroid and the longest mission to outer space — a “trailblazer.”

Japanese companies hope the mission can translate to sales in the steadily expanding market for space technology.

According to the nonprofit Space Foundation, based in Colorado, the commercial and governmental global market for satellites and other space infrastructure grew to $261 billion in 2009, up 7 percent from 2008 and 40 percent over the last five years. But Japanese companies so far have failed to gain much traction as prime contractors in the global satellite communications market.

NEC, which built the probe’s advanced ion engines, wants to sell its technology in the United States, to NASA as well as to commercial customers through a joint venture with the American aerospace firm Aerojet-General.

Ion engines use electric fields, instead of chemical reactions, to propel rockets and satellites. They are less powerful but more efficient than conventional chemical engines and can last for years before running out of fuel.

The information technology behemoth Fujitsu, meanwhile, is aggressively marketing its communications systems, which are credited with guiding the Hayabusa spacecraft back to Earth.

And IHI, which developed the probe’s heat-resistance technology, says it hopes to build on the mission’s publicity to double the revenue from its space-related business.

An expert panel was appointed earlier this year to advise the government on ways to help double Japanese companies’ earnings from their space businesses to at least 14 trillion yen ($158 billion).

“Achieving big goals is always accompanied with adversity, but where there’s a strong will, there’s a way,” NEC’s president, Nobuhiro Endo, said at a shareholders’ meeting on June 22, showing off a scaled model of the Hayabusa.

Japan, the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to put a satellite into orbit, in 1977, has since launched a string of successful rockets and has been intent on being a space power. But its aspirations have more recently been usurped by China, which put a man in space — a feat Japan has not yet managed on its own — and it has also incurred a series of setbacks, including a Mars probe launched in 1998 that failed to reach orbit around that planet.

And the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — known as JAXA — with a budget of about 230 billion yen for 2010 ($2.6 billion), is still relatively tiny compared with the United States’ NASA and its $18.7 billion budget.

Launched on a Japanese rocket in May 2003, the Hayabusa (translation: peregrine falcon) had a benighted journey. After the probe landed in 2005 on the Itokawa asteroid, which is about a third of a mile long and shaped like a potato, its sample-capture mechanism went awry. To the public’s dismay, JAXA officials said they were not sure whether any samples had been collected.

Next, the probe’s robotic rover, meant to take photos and temperature readings on the asteroid, inexplicably floated off into space and was never heard from again.

Worse yet, after Hayabusa took off from the asteroid, all four of NEC’s ion engines shut down. So did all 12 of the chemical-fueled rocket engines made by another space industry giant, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The probe was left drifting in space.

Then, for more than seven weeks, for reasons still not clear, there were no communication signals from the probe. Public dismay quickly turned to derision and, eventually, indifference.

On the 49th day of radio silence, the Hayabusa control room finally made contact with the probe, Junichiro Kawaguchi, the mission’s leader, recalled in an interview. But scientists intent on remotely reviving the failed engines succeeded only in getting the undamaged half of one ion engine to work with the undamaged portion of a second engine.

With the Hayabusa limping along, JAXA had to drastically alter its original plan, which had called for the probe to approach Earth, eject its capsule of samples back into the atmosphere and then remain in orbit awaiting orders for a new mission.

But the equivalent of only one full engine made it impossible for the probe to muster the propulsion to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. The probe itself would have to re-enter the atmosphere in a ball of fire, with only the heatproof sample capsule surviving.

“I could see the sparks as the probe disintegrated,” Mr. Kawaguchi said of the June 13 re-entry. “It was a miraculous return, yet I had very mixed emotions.”

Still, the Hayabusa’s fiery return, three years later than the originally scheduled capsule drop, has generally been hailed as a national triumph. Fans flocked to public viewings, some decked out in handmade costumes meant to resemble the probe.

Now, though, as JAXA continues to slowly open and examine the capsule, officials say it will take months to determine whether it contains any asteroid samples.

Some Japanese space experts choose to see the glass as more than half full.

“What Hayabusa has shown is the reliability of Japan’s technology,” said Hiroaki Akiyama, a specialist in planet geology at Wakayama University in western Japan. “Traveling to the asteroid, making a landing and then returning to Earth is in itself a near miracle,” he said. “The return of the probe has proven that Japan’s space program might not be big, but it is one of the most advanced in the world.”

But the fear lingers that after its million-mile errand of retrieval, the Hayabusa falcon has returned with empty talons.

If there are no meaningful asteroid samples, space enthusiasts fear that public disappointment could lead the government to slash spending on basic space exploration programs. Most directly at stake, as Tokyo tries to rein in public spending, is a second Hayabusa mission planned for around 2014 to journey to another asteroid — this time in a search for water or organic matter — looking for clues not just to the Earth’s beginnings but to the origins of life itself.

The Democratic government, which took office in September and is now led by a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, is talking a fiscal hard line. The Democrats had threatened to scale back this year’s approximately $1.9 million budget for the Hayabusa 2 program to less than $565,000, although Mr. Kan has recently said he will consider reviving financing for the next Hayabusa project.

And while initial polls after the Hayabusa’s return showed renewed public support for increased space spending, doubts are already surfacing in the news media.

“Apart from making it back to Earth, there aren’t any results to show,” the influential Nikkei Industrial Journal said in an editorial on Monday. “With three out of four engines breaking down, there is no proof that the technology is reliable. And it’s extremely suspect that any sand from the asteroid was collected — the goal of the mission.”

But Mr. Kawaguchi, the Hayabusa project leader, and other space industry insiders say the real failure will come if Japan gives up so easily.

“Yes, there were problems, but we learned how to overcome those — that’s the whole point,” he said. “We’ve sent a message out to the world that Japanese technology still leads.”

No comments: