Home > Awesome Science > Awesome Science: Missions to Asteroids

Awesome Science: Missions to Asteroids

A few years ago, everyone was obsessed with asteroids. “Armageddon” smashed at the box-office, despite new-fangled levels of sucking. But sadly the enthusiasm has waned, and the most popular story on CNN.com earlier today was about Heidi Montag (She’s splitting with Spencer?!? Oh No! How many plastic surgeries will it take to cure this round of heartache?).

So here for your enjoyment is a synopsis of two really cool space missions whose goal it is to study asteroids. These stories I deem more newsworthy than the crap in the headlines.

1) Hayabusa

Artist's Conception of the Hayabusa Spacecraft

A product of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Hayabusa launched in May of 2004. In November of 2005, it landed (yes, it landed!) on asteroid 25143 Itokawa and attempted to collect rock samples. Unfortunately, the metal projectiles which Hayabusa was supposed to fire to dislodge some fragments of the asteroid may have malfunctioned.

Also unfortunate was the loss of MINERVA, a mini-rover which was supposed to be released from Hayabusa to scurry around the asteroid surface. MINERVA was released too high an altitude though, and tumbled out into space.

Even though it may not have collected large fragments of the asteroid, Hayabusa almost surely capture dust and other particles when its bay doors were opened, so the mission should still yield some positive results.

In any case, we will find out on June 13, 2010 when Hayabusa returns to Earth to deliver its cargo.

2) Rosetta

Artists conception of the spacecraft Rosetta approaching asteroid Steins. Photo: ESA

The European Space Agency launched Rosetta also in 2004. Its primary mission is to land (yes, land!) on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with which it will rendezvous in 2014.

Along the way though, it will do flybys to two asteroids: 2867 Steins, which it already did a flyby in September of 2008, and 21 Lutetia which it will flyby in July of 2010.

Once reaching the comet in 2014, Rosetta will help give us a better picture of what comets are made of and the composition of the solar system before the planets were formed.

Now I know I am a nerd. Its OK, I’ve come to terms with it. But I find it pretty amazing that humans can build a machine, launch it into space, have it LAND on a comet or asteroid, and bring comet/asteroid stuff back to us! In fact, I would be so bold as to say that this is more interesting than the status of Heidi and Spencer. But I guess that’s just me…

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