David Waters is your host for the latest edition of “This Week In Space.” Check us out!
It was a nail biter – sample return missions always are – but in the end JAXA pulled it out and the troubled Japanese “Hayabusa” mission to land on an asteroid and collect a sample ended on a high note. A small capsule containing dust from the asteroid Itokawa touched down Sunday under parachute at the Woomera test range in the Australian Outback. Launched in May 2003, Hayabusa suffered a host of technical problems and malfunctions, but in the end came home. For those of you keeping score, NASA is 1 for 1 on sample return missions in recent years. The Genesis spacecraft, which returned a sample of the solar wind to Earth for analysis, cratered in the desert of Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground back in 2004 when its drogue parachute failed to deploy. Some of the sample return payload survived the crash, though. On a happier note, the Stardust spacecraft successfully returned a dust sample from the tail of the comet Wild 2 in 2006…also to the Dugway Proving Ground. And to answer your final question – yes, I know what it is – “Hayabusa” means “Peregrin Falcon.”
While the Japanese were celebrating, the South Koreans – well, no so much. They “had a bad day” on Thursday as they say in the rocket business. A Russian-built Naro-1 rocket launched from the Naro Space Center and all appeared fine at first, but mission controllers lost contact with it 137 seconds into flight. Korean news reports indicated it exploded and crashed. This is the second failure in two tries for the Koreans, who are attempting to establish a toehold in the satellite launch club. Currently, eight countries and Europe have established launch capability.
And, before we leave the Pacific Rim…What was that glowing spiral in the sky over Australia last Saturday morning? Could it be ALIENS? Well, as it turns out, no. It was actually Falcon 9. Despite the spate of UFO reports that were phoned in to TV stations around Australia, SpaceX founder Elon Musk told our friends at Space.com that folks were actually seeing Falcon 9 venting propellants after it rocketed to orbit. The sun caught the event at just the right angle to put on a show for the Aussies.
Thousands of contractor employees who work on the Constellation program have known the pink slips were coming ever since the Obama Administration announced plans to cancel the moon-shot project in February – but now it looks like they may be hitting the unemployment line earlier than they thought. NASA has told big contractors Lockheed Martin and ATK to come up with the money to cover the costs of bringing Constellation to an end, even though Congress has not signed off of the cancellation yet. It seems Lockmart and ATK are contractually required to pay those termination costs…which will total about a billion dollars. Now those companies will likely have to lay off workers to pull that money together. Expect this latest development to further poison the already nasty debate going on between the Administration, NASA and Congress over the future of the manned spaceflight program. We’ll have more on this for you in next week’s show.