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November 16, 2010 3:32 pm

Boost for Tokyo’s space venture

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Japan's beleaguered space programme won a boost on Tuesday with the discovery of tiny specks of asteroid dust in an unmanned spaceship.

The extraterrestrial origin of particles scraped from the innards of the Hayabusa space probe means the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency can declare its mission a success, despite a series of setbacks including the failure of its sample-collecting apparatus.

The news came just days ahead of government hearings on funding for Jaxa, which is seen by some politicians from the ruling Democratic party as a soft target for cuts needed to free up funds for social welfare. Budget panels last year recommended hefty reductions cuts to Jaxa’s spending on satellites and rocket development.

The space agency can now proudly claim to be the first successfully to bring material from an asteroid back to earth, a feat it says could cast light on the formation of the solar system. “My heart is full of emotion,” said Junichiro Kawaguchi, Hayabusa mission leader.

Hayabusa suffered engine and communication troubles during its multibillion kilometre odyssey across space that began in 2003 and ended – three years later than planned – with a fiery descent to an Australian landing site in June.

The biggest setback came during the Hayabusa’s rendezvous with the Itokawa asteroid, during which it failed to fire projectiles into the surface of the icy rock to kick up debris for collection and return to earth.

Jaxa was left hoping that particles might have drifted into the Hayabusa's collection chamber during its half hour landing on the asteroid.

Such hopes were raised when particles were found in the space probe after its recovery, but Jaxa still had to contend with concerns that they might be the result of earthbound contamination.

After months of analysis on material painstakingly retrieved from the probe with a special spatula, the agency announced on Tuesday that it had identified about 1,500 grains of “rocky particles”.

“Most of them were judged to be of extraterrestrial origin, and definitely from asteroid Itokawa,” Jaxa said.

The discovery is a boost for the agency, which is struggling to shake off a reputation for high costs and the embarrassing rocket and mission failures. It comes after Jaxa’s success in launching new heavy-lift rocket and unmanned cargo spaceships last year and an ongoing test of a pioneering solar powered “space yacht” .

However, the Hayabusa mission's challenges are far from over. The size of the retrieved particles – which are mostly smaller than one hundredth of a millimetre – means studying them will not be easy.

“Handling these grains requires very special skills,” Jaxa said, adding that it was still developing the necessary techniques.

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