Tag Archives: Japan

Japan successfully sends small recoverable capsule back from ISS

Japan’s most recent cargo freighter to ISS, after undocking and beginning its de-orbit maneuvers, released a small recoverable capsule that was successfully recovered on Earth.

A capsule ejected from a space cargo vessel returned to Earth on Sunday, bringing back experiment samples from the International Space Station (ISS) in the first such mission for Japan.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the capsule, measuring 84 wide and 66 cm high, made a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific near the island of Minamitorishima early in the morning and was retrieved later in the day.

“I think we’ve succeeded almost as planned,” Hirohiko Uematsu, technology director of JAXA, told a press conference at the agency’s Tsukuba Space Center in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The last quote above suggests that the recovery was not entirely successful, but no details were provided. Regardless, this gives the users of ISS a second way to bring experiments back from the station, with SpaceX’s Dragon the first.

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Company focused on cleaning up space junk raises $50 million

Capitalism in space: Astroscale, a Japanese company with British ties, has raised $50 million in investment capital for developing a robot spacecraft for locating and removing space junk from orbit.

The company plans to use the funding to support several ongoing efforts, including the development of a technology demonstration satellite called ELSA-d. That spacecraft, scheduled for launch in early 2020 on a Soyuz rocket, will feature “target” and “chaser” satellites to demonstrate rendezvous and proximity operations. The target spacecraft is being built by British smallsat developer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. under a contract announced last November.

The funding will support scaling up an operations center Astroscale established in the United Kingdom in 2017 that also handles engineering, procurement and business development. Astroscale said it plans to establish an office in the United States in 2019.

The article notes also that much of this money comes from Japanese investors, including Mitsubishi, and reflects a growing interest in Japan in private commercial space.

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Oblique view of Hayabusa-2’s most recent landing rehearsal

Cool movie time! The Hayabusa-2 science team has released a small movie of images taken by a side-mounted camera of the spacecraft’s most recent landing rehearsal, showing the spacecraft ascend from its closest approach from an oblique angle.

I have embedded the movie from these images below the fold. As they note,

Images taken with the small monitor camera (CAM-H) during the Touchdown 1 Rehearsal 3 operation (TD1-R3). One image was captured every second from immediately after the spacecraft began to ascend (altitude 21m) on October 25, 2018 at 11:47 JST. The spacecraft was rising at about 52cm/s.

It appears the closest image was taken from about 21 meters away, about 65 feet, and gives a sense of scale. It also reveals once again how difficult that landing in January is going to be. Though this location is thought to be the smoothest spot on Ryugu, it is still littered with rocks that could cause problems.
» Read more

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Japan launches UAE satellite

The new colonial movement: A Japanese H-2A rocket today successfully placed into orbit the United Arab Emirates first home-built satellite.

This gives Japan six launches for 2018, matching that nation’s previous high, accomplished both in 2006 and 2017.

The UAE satellite, KhalifaSat, was essentially a cubesat, and could be considered comparable to the numerous student-built cubesats that have been built and launched by universities as teaching devices.

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Hayabusa-2’s highest resolution image so far

Ryugu up close

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released the highest resolution image taken by the spacecraft so far. The image on the right, reduced to post here, is that image. Click on it to see the full resolution version.

The image resolution is about 4.6mm/pixel. This is the highest resolution image that Hayabusa2 has taken so far and even small rocks with a diameter of 2 – 3cm are clearly visible. The maximum resolution of AMICA –the camera at the time of the first Hayabusa mission— was 6 mm/pixel, so even its resolution has now been exceeded. As the image captured of the asteroid surface from the spacecraft, it will be one of the highest resolution to be taken of Ryugu (MINERVA-II1 and MASCOT which landed on the surface, have captured even higher resolution images).

A feature from the image is the lack of regolith (sandy substance). This was suspected to be true from the images obtained so far, but it is more clearly seen in this high resolution photograph. There is also a collection of pebbles with different colors, which may be evidence that the surface material of Ryugu is mixed.

This was taken during the second landing rehearsal about two weeks ago. The image clearly shows the rubble pile that is Ryugu, lacking anything but cemented rocks. It also illustrates the landing problem faced by Hayabusa-2’s engineers. They need a flat smooth area to land, and they have not really found one that fits their needs.

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Hayabusa-2 completes third Ryugu touchdown rehearsal

Ryugu up close

Hayabusa-2 today completed its third Ryugu touchdown rehearsal.

According to their operation schedule, they were planning to descent to about 20 meters of the surface, about 65 feet. The image on the right is the closest image taken during the rehearsal. You can see the shadow of Hayabusa-2 in the middle of the frame.

They have not released any information about the rehearsal results. The key here is how accurately they were able to get Hayabusa-2 to approach the asteroid’s largest flat spot, a tiny 20 meter wide spot less than half the size of their original planned landing diameter. From the image, it is unclear how successful they were.

They will now spend the next two months analyzing the data from their landing rehearsals in preparation for a landing attempt in January. During this time observations will be reduced because the Sun will be between the Earth and the asteroid.

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Hayabusa-2 will do two touchdown rehearsals prior to landing in January

In order to test whether they can bring Hayabusa-2 down to the surface within a circle only 20 meters (65 feet) across (the largest smooth landing area they have found so far on Ryugu), their engineering team has decided to first do two more touchdown rehearsals in October.

In the area where the spacecraft will touchdown, it is dangerous to have boulders with a height greater than about 50cm. Since the length of the sampler horn is about 1m and the spacecraft will be to be slightly inclined during the touchdown, there is a possibility that if a boulder with a height above about 50cm is present, it will strike the main body of the spacecraft or the solar panels. Viewed from the position in Figure 2, there is no boulder larger than 50cm in the area L08-B. L08-B is the widest part within all the candidate sites without a boulder larger than 50cm.

The difficulty is that area L08-B is only about 20m in diameter. Originally, it was assumed that a safe region for touchdown would be a flat area with a radius of about 50m (100m in diameter). This has now become a radius of just 10m; a fairly severe constraint. On the other hand, during the descent to an altitude of about 50m during the MINERVA-II1 and MASCOT separation operations, we were able to confirm that the spacecraft can be guided within a position accuracy of about 10m for a height 50m above the surface of Ryugu (Figure 3). This is a promising feature for touchdown.

Although the spacecraft can be controlled with a position error of 10m at an altitude down to 50m, there remains the question of whether this accuracy can be retained as the spacecraft descends to the surface. This must be confirmed before touchdown operations. Therefore, the touchdown itself will be postponed until next year, during which time we will have two touchdown rehearsals; TD1-R1-A and TD1-R3.

After the rehearsals in October they must wait until January to do the landing because in November and December the sun will be in-between the Earth and the spacecraft, making operations more difficult. They want to also use this time to review the results of the rehearsals to better prepare for the January landing.

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MASCOT’s journey on Ryugu

MASCOT's journey on Ryugu

MASCOT’s German science team has released a summary of the lander/hopper’s results and seventeen hour journey across the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows the spacecraft approach, landing, and numerous hops across the surface. If you click on the image you can see the full high resolution image.

Having reconstructed the events that took place on asteroid Ryugu, the scientists are now busy analysing the first results from the acquired data and images. “What we saw from a distance already gave us an idea of what it might look like on the surface,” reports Ralf Jaumann from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and scientific director of the MASCOT mission. “In fact, it is even crazier on the surface than expected. Everything is covered in rough blocks and strewn with boulders. How compact these blocks are and what they are composed of, we still do not know. But what was most surprising was that large accumulations of fine material are nowhere to be found – and we did not expect that. We have to investigate this in the next few weeks, because the cosmic weathering would actually have had to produce fine material,” continues Jaumann.

The spacecraft apparently bounced eight times after first contact, then executed three hops. The rubble pile nature that is observed I think explains why the Hayabusa-2 science team decided to delay its own landing for a few months so they could figure out a plan. It really appears that Ryugu does not have any smooth flat spots, as expect.

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Hayabusa-2 landing on Ryugu delayed until January

Because of the roughness of the surface of Ryugu, the Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to delay the landing of the spacecraft on the asteroid from the end of this month until late January at the earliest.

JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said they needed more time to prepare the landing as the latest data showed the asteroid surface was more rugged than expected.

“The mission … is to land without hitting rocks,” Tsuda said, adding this was a “most difficult” operation. “We had expected the surface would be smooth … but it seems there’s no flat area.”

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This decision is a wise one. They will have the ability to land very precisely, and this will give them time to find the least risky spot. It does indicate however that the landing itself is going to be risky, which is probably why they want more time to gather data beforehand. Should the landing fail, the mission will essentially be over. This way they can maximize what they learn.

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Images of Mascot by Hayabusa released

MASCOT descending towards Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released images taken of MASCOT as it descended to the surface of Ryugu, including images showing where it landed.

In the image on the right, reduced slightly to post here, you can see MASCOT as it slowly moves downward towards the asteroid shortly after its release from Hayabusa-2. At the link there is another image showing the mini-lander as a white dot when it was still about 115 feet above the surface. Other images show its location on the surface where it operated for seventeen hours and completed three hops.

The next big event from Hayabusa-2 will be the spacecraft’s own landing, sometime later this month.

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ISS’s international partners express interest in extending station’s life

While NASA has been considering the end of ISS, this week its international partners all expressed interest this week in extending its life beyond 2024.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.” He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

While I can see many benefits for extending ISS, leaving it as a wholly government-run operation will reduce its effectiveness while increasing its cost. I also suspect all these agencies are lobbying for funding. If they can get money for both ISS and Gateway, it will increase their footprint in space significantly.

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Deployment operations for Hayabusa-2’s MASCOT lander have begun

Engineers have begun the deployment sequence for Hayabusa-2’s MASCOT lander, with deployment planned for tomorrow.

Right now Hayabusa-2 is slowly moving closer to Ryugu, with live images appearing about once every half hour. More information about MASCOT can be found here. The lander can also hop like the MINERVA bouncers, but it can only do it once. Its battery life is about sixteen hours, so once it is deployed it will only operate on the surface for a short while.

Both the MINERVA and MASCOT mini-landers are mostly engineering tests for using small cubesat-sized spacecraft as probes. So far the MINERVA bouncers have been an unqualified success. Hopefully MASCOT will be as successfully.

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New images from Hayabusa-2’s mini-bouncers

Three press releases from the Hayabusa-2 science team last night provide new images from the spacecraft’s MINERVA bouncers, presently on the surface of Ryugu, as well as new high resolution images from Hayabusa-2 during its recent close-in maneuvers.

The images from the first story also includes a ten second movie showing a very rocky surface with the sun moving across the sky. The last link shows the primary landing site candidate with two backup sites.

All told, these images suggest that Ryugu is nothing more than a rubble pile stuck together. If it was heading to Earth, it might be difficult to deflect it, as it might break apart caused by any stress.

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SpaceX gets contract to launch private lunar rover missions

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a contract for two launches of lunar rovers built by a private Japanese company.

okyo-based lunar-exploration startup Ispace has signed up for launches on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2020 and 2021. The first will carry a lunar lander into orbit around the moon, and the second aims to put one on the moon’s surface so it can deploy a pair of rovers, Ispace said Wednesday. “We share the vision with SpaceX of enabling humans to live in space, so we’re very glad they will join us in this first step of our journey,” Ispace Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement.

SpaceX already has a contract for another private lunar rover, built by the Israeli company SpaceIL, that is set to launch as a secondary payload in December.

Both companies are former competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. Based on these contracts, as well as the pending launch of Moon Express’s private lunar rover on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, it appears that private commercial planetary missions are about to become routine.

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Japan successfully launches unmanned cargo ship to ISS

Japan today used a Mitsubishi H-2B rocket to successfully launch an unmanned cargo ship to ISS.

The cargo ship will take five days to rendezvous and dock with ISS. Its most interesting piece of cargo is a small capsule with a heat shield, designed to return experiment samples to Earth.

JAXA says the the capsule has an internal volume of about 30 liters, and astronauts could load up to 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of specimens inside the landing craft, which features a thermos-like container to store refrigerated biological samples. That is a fraction of the carrying capacity of the Dragon capsule, but the new HTV Small Return Capsule will offer station managers a new way to make sure time-critical items can return to Earth for analysis.

Astronauts will assemble the return capsule after the HTV arrives at the station, and mount it into position over the HTV’s forward hatch for deployment once the supply ship leaves the station.

The capsule, which carries no engines of its own, will jettison after the HTV completes its deorbit burn. The re-entry craft will deploy a parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where recovery teams will retrieve it and bring it back to Japan for inspections.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

25 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
5 Europe (Arianespace)
5 Japan

For Japan to be tied with Europe this late in the year either indicates that Europe is sagging, or Japan is growing. I suspect it is partly both. In the national rankings China still leads the U.S. 25 to 24.

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Minerva probes send back first pictures

Ryugu's surface

Super cool images! The two Minerva probes released two days ago from Hayabusa-2 have both sent back spectacular images from the surface of Ryugu.

The image on the right was captured by the rover dubbed 1A. I have rotated it to show the surface on the bottom, but the actual picture was taking during one of the rover’s bounces while it was moving, so the returned picture had the surface on left. The white brightness is from sunlight. From the press release:

We have confirmed both rovers landed on the surface of asteroid Ryugu. The two rovers are in good condition and are transmitting images and data. Analysis of this information confirmed that at least one of the rovers is moving on the asteroid surface.

MINERVA-II1 is the world’s first rover (mobile exploration robot) to land on the surface of an asteroid. This is also the first time for autonomous movement and picture capture on an asteroid surface. MINERVA-II1 is therefore “the world’s first man-made object to explore movement on an asteroid surface”. We are also delighted that the two rovers both achieved this operation at the same time.

Other released images were taken just after release. One shows a blurred picture of Hayabusa-2, while the other sees Ryugu’s surface below.

Both of these rovers are designed to travel on the surface by a series of hops, taking advantage of Ryugu’s tiny gravity. There will be more images I’m sure from them in the coming days.

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Hayabusa-2 sees its shadow

Ryugu, with Hayabusa-2's shadow

During its aborted landing rehearsal last week Hayabusa-2 imaged its own shadow as it approached within 600 meters of Ryugu.

The shadow is only a little dot on the surface of the asteroid, but to have resolved it is quite impressive. The image on the right has been annotated by me to indicate the shadow.

They have not said when they will do another landing rehearsal. Meanwhile, two of the spacecraft’s mini-landers are expected to be released sometime in the next few days.

Update: Based on the raw navigation images being released in real time from Hayabusa-2, the release of the MINERVA-II-1 has begun, with Hayabusa-2 moving in towards Ryugu in preparation for that release.

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Dress rehearsal of Hayabusa-2’s landing scrapped

The dress rehearsal of Hayabusa-2’s eventual landing on the asteroid Ryugu was cut short yesterday when the spacecraft found it could not get a reliable distance reading of the surface once it descended to 600 meters.

The problem was apparently due to the pitch black surface of the carbon-rich asteroid that made laser distance measurements difficult. JAXA says the Hayabusa 2 is in good condition, and the agency is considering changing landing procedures such as adjusting the configuration of measuring devices.

Despite the suspension, the altitude of 600 meters the explorer has descended to the asteroid is the closest ever recorded. JAXA had planned to bring down the probe to 30 meters and make detailed observations of a landing spot.

Just to clarify, this was a height record for Hayabusa-2 only.

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Japan to launch space elevator experiment to ISS

When Japan launches its unmanned freighter to ISS on September 10, it will carry a two-cubesat engineering test of some of the concepts required to build a space elevator.

In the experiment, which will be the first of its kind in space, two ultrasmall cubic satellites, or “cubesats,” will be released into space from the station. They will be connected by a steel cable, where a small container — acting like an elevator car — will move along the cable using its own motor. A camera attached to the satellites will record the movements of the container in space, according to the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi.

Each cubesat measures just under 4 inches (10 centimeters) on each side. The cubesats will be connected by a 33-foot-long (10 meters) steel cable for the “elevator car” to move along, according to the report.

I wonder if this experiment will also test some of the technology needed for generating electricity using a tether. Over the decades there have been a number of experimental attempts in space of this concept, all of which have failed for a variety of reasons, all unrelated to the concept itself.

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Hayabusa-1 sample pins down age of asteroid

Using particles gathered by Hayabusa-1 Japanese scientists have determined the age of the asteroid Itokawa.

Japanese scientists, including those from Osaka University, closely examined particles collected from the asteroid Itokawa by the spacecraft Hayabusa, finding that the parent body of Itokawa was formed about 4.6 billion years ago when the solar system was born and that it was destroyed by a collision with another asteroid about 1.5 billion years ago.

These results are only the beginning. As more samples return from more asteroids, scientists will start to add details to the overall history of the formation and evolution of the solar system, adding significant depth to the rough outline they presently have. And these new samples are already on the way, with both Hayabusa-2 and OSIRIS-REx approaching their target asteroids.

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Hayabusa-2 science team lay out Ryugu landing schedule

At a press conference yesterday the Hayabusa-2 science team laid out their landing schedule for the spacecraft and its three tiny landers.

The first lander will be one of its two tiny MINERVA-II probes, and will take place in September. This will be followed by the German/French MASCOT probe in early October, followed in turn in late October by Hayabusa-2 itself.

The landings of the first two probes will help them pick Hayabusa-2’s landing site, as well as the site for last MINERVA lander.

Mission planners faced tough choices because the body almost uniformly strewn with boulders. “Ryugu is beautiful, but challenging,” said Aurélie Moussi, a collaborator from the French space agency CNES in Toulouse, at a press conference in Sagamihara, Japan, on 23 August.

…To minimize risks for MASCOT, mission planners mapped the topography of Ryugu and the distribution and size of the boulders on its surface. They ran computer simulations to produce a shortlist of ten options, and then picked one spot on the asteroid’s southern hemisphere. The choice reflected a number of criteria, including average temperatures on the ground and the materials that MASCOT will analyse with its four on-board instruments. “The other sites would have been just as good, or just as difficult,” says MASCOT payload manager Stephan Ulamec of the German Aerospace Center in Cologne. “Wherever we look, there is a lot of big boulders.”

It does appear that the boulder-strewn surface is posing a problem for the engineers.

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Second Japanese official indicted in JAXA bribery scandal

Japanese authorities have now indicted a second government official for taking bribes in connection with space work by the country’s space agency JAXA.

Kazuaki Kawabata, 57, the former director-general for international affairs at the ministry, allegedly received bribes worth about 1.5 million yen ($13,570) in the form of wining and dining.

Koji Taniguchi, 47, who served as an executive of a medical care consulting company, was also indicted on Aug. 15 on a charge of providing the bribes to Kawabata. Taniguchi had already been indicted in a different scandal on a charge of helping another education ministry official, Futoshi Sano, receive bribes from Tokyo Medical University executives.

According to the announcement by the Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, Kawabata was on loan to JAXA from August 2015 to March 2017, where he worked as a vice president. During the period, he was wined and dined more than 20 times in return for giving favors to the consulting company. The lavish drinks and dining totaled 1.5 million yen, including taxi fares.

None of this is really news. It is standard operating procedure at the higher levels of most government operations. These guys simply weren’t smart enough to disguise their corruption very well.

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Japanese officials arrested, JAXA raided, in bribery scandal

Japanese officials have been arrested and offices at the space agency JAXA raided in a bribery scandal that also involves Japan’s education ministry.

It appears an official in the education ministry was bribing people, including one individual at JAXA, with meals and liquor in order to gain an advantage in contract bidding.

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Hayabusa-2 finds Ryugu covered with scattered large boulders

Hayabusa-2 has found that the asteroid Ryugu is covered with many scattered large boulders.

The Hayabusa 2 space probe discovered many boulders scattered on the asteroid Ryugu, suggesting it was formed from fragments of other celestial bodies, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said July 19. More than 100 rocks larger than 8 meters in length were confirmed on the surface of the “spinning top” asteroid from images captured by Hayabusa 2, according to JAXA. The largest boulder was about 130 meters in length near the south pole.

The rocks are likely too big to be meteor fragments from collisions with Ryugu, which has a diameter of about 900 meters. “(The finding) is compelling evidence to prove that the Ryugu asteroid was formed by fragments of larger celestial bodies,” said Seiichiro Watanabe, head of the study team and professor of Nagoya University.

The asteroid’s slightly tilted axis of rotation gives Ryugu two seasons: summer and winter. Hayabusa 2 found the temperature ranged from about 20 to 100 degrees on Ryugu’s surface.

Surprise! This finding makes Ryugu very different from every other asteroid previously visited. Most have had relatively smooth surfaces, with lots of dust.

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Private Japanese smallsat rocket fails at launch

Capitalism in space: The second test flight of a private Japanese smallsat rocket company, Interstellar Technologies, today failed immediately at launch.

A rocket developed by a Japanese startup company burst into flames seconds after a failed liftoff Saturday in northern Japan.

The MOMO-2 rocket, developed by Interstellar Technologies, was launched in Taiki town on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island. It was supposed to reach as high as 100 kilometers (62 miles) into space. Television footage showed that the 10-meter (33-foot) pencil rocket lifted only slightly from its launch pad before dropping to the ground, disappearing in a fireball. Footage on NHK public television showed a charred rocket lying on the ground.

The incident caused no injuries.

Rocket science is hard. Competition and freedom carries risks. This company might not be dead, but this failure is definitely a significant setback.

Posted from Belize.

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Ryugu seen from 150-200 miles

Ryugu from 150 milesl

Cool image time! Hayabusa-2’s approach to asteroid Ryugu continues. The image to the right, cropped to post here, shows one of four images taken by the spacecraft on June 17 and June 18. In this image the distance is about 150 miles. As noted in the Hayabusa-2 press release,

The shape of the asteroid looks like a spinning top (called a “Coma” in Japanese), with the equatorial part wider than the poles. This form is seen in many small asteroids that are rotating at high speed. Observed by radar from the ground, asteroid Bennu (the destination of the US mission, OSIRIS-REx), asteroid Didymous (the target of the US DART project), and asteroid 2008 EV5 that is approaching the Earth, all have a similar shape.

On the surface of asteroid Ryugu, you can see a number of crater-like round recessed landforms. In the first image, one large example can be seen with a diameter exceeding 200m. This moves to the left and darkens as the asteroid rotates and the lower part becomes cast in shadows.

The bulge at the equator forms a ridge around the asteroid like a mountain range. Outside this, the surface topology appears very ridge-shaped and rock-like bulges are also seen. These details should become clearer as the resolution increases in the future.

Based on the visible landforms, they presently estimate Ryugu’s rotation period to be about 7.5 hours.

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Hayabusa-2 takes first photos of target asteroid Ryugu

On June 10 Hayabusa-2 took its first photos of Ryugu, the asteroid it will reach later this month.

The Sunday photos were taken when Hayabusa2 was about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Ryugu. Last week, JAXA released a few ONC-T images taken on June 6, when the probe was 1,615 miles (2,600 km) from the space rock.

Hayabusa2, which launched in December 2014, is scheduled to arrive at Ryugu on or around June 27. At that time, the probe will begin orbiting the asteroid at an altitude of about 12 miles (20 km), JAXA officials have said.

Hayabusa2 will then start prepping for a series of complex, up-close studies of the space rock. If all goes according to plan, over the ensuing 12 months, the spacecraft will deploy three rovers and a lander on Ryugu’s surface, gouge out a small crater using an explosives-bearing impactor, and collect samples from the newly created crater.

The spacecraft will depart Ryugu in November or December 2019, and its collected samples will come back to Earth in a special return capsule in late 2020.

The image suggests that the asteroid is “not significantly elongated.”

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Japan’s space agency to build reusable rocket

Japan’s space agency JAXA revealed today that it plans to build a reusable rocket capable of launching twice in two days, with the first test launch now scheduled for 2019.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, plans to build a rocket that can carry observation equipment into space, return to Earth, and be ready for launch again the next day. JAXA aims to start test-launching and landing the roughly 7-meter rocket as early as the spring of 2019, and introduce it for regular operations in the 2020s.

JAXA has already confirmed that the rocket’s key components, including its engine, can endure more than 100 launches, significantly reducing costs compared with single-use models.

I hate to be such a spoilsport, but I have little faith they will do this on the schedule claimed. This story reads like the dozens I’ve read over the past three decades from Russia and NASA, where they repeatedly announce the coming development of some new rocket or manned space project, none of which ever happens.

In other words, this story is nothing more than a bit of government propaganda, trying to convince the Japanese public that JAXA is cutting edge, that they too are going to build reusable rockets, and that they can do it quickly. In reality, I doubt we shall see this government-built reusable rocket anytime soon.

The fact that they have issued this claim however is a good sign. Japan’s lumbering and expensive government space agency is now finding itself under pressure to deliver, and the competition that is causing that pressure might very well force them to streamline their operations and actually accomplish something.

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Japan creates $1 billion fund for private space start-ups

The new colonial movement: Japan’s government has created a $940 million fund that will be used to help new space companies get started.

The funds will be made available through investments and loans over the next five years, as part of a government-led initiative to double Japan’s more than $11 billion space industry. With less than 20 Japanese space start-ups currently operating, many see this as critical to helping new companies cover costs such as research or applying for patents. “We believe this will be remembered as a turning point for our burgeoning industry,” Takeshi Hakamada, CEO and founder of lunar exploration start-up ispace, said in a statement.

Ispace has received government backing in the past, including during a recent $90.2 million round of funding that included Suzuki Motor and Japan Airlines. Founded seven years ago, ispace is stepping beyond the Google-backed Lunar XPRIZE competition to fund two exploration missions to the moon, with the first by the end of 2019 and the second by the end of 2020.

The Japanese government is setting up an agency to manage the funds and connect start-ups with local talent from organizations such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency or the rocket-building arm of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Initially, start-ups will be eligible to each receive about $100,000 in aid to help present concepts to investors. Promising ventures and more mature companies will be able to tap into the rest of the $940 million fund to further development.

More details here.

The most interesting aspect however of this new effort is the decision by Japan to also review its space law in order to encourage private ownership in space.

Japan also announced it is considering new laws and policies that would allow businesses to own plots of land developed on the moon, in a similar manner to the laws passed by the United States and Luxembourg. So far, the U.S. and Luxembourg are the only two countries in the world to have passed laws giving corporations ownership of materials mined in space, but only after they’ve been extracted. That legal framework has seen the tiny European country attract dozens of space companies, with another 70 space companies looking to establish in Luxembourg, according to Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider.

They will find, as have the U.S. and Luxembourg as well as UAE, the United Kingdom, and a number of other countries that have reviewed the Outer Space Treaty, that this legal framework under this treaty will not work well, and still leaves the ownership rights of private companies very vulnerable. To protect property rights in space, either the Outer Space Treaty has to be changed to allow the establishment of national borders and laws, or dumped entirely.

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