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Japan just landed a shuttle on an asteroid

A Japanese spacecraft has successfully landed on an asteroid. It’s only the second time in history that such a feat has been achieved, the previous success also belonging to the Japanese space agency. Now, the fridge-sized Hayabusa-2 probe is expected to extract samples from the asteroid and bring them back for research.

A closer look at Ryugu. Image credits: JAXA.

The atmosphere was tense at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa). Members were observing the landing from a control room when they hear

“The touchdown is successful,” Jaxa spokesman Takayuki Tomobe said, prompting hugs, hurrays, and plenty of “V” victory signs.

The probe first reached the Ryugu asteroid in June 2018, carrying out observations and measurements for months. Because there is virtually no friction in space, the surface of the asteroid isn’t smooth — it’s very rough, and landing on it requires precise calculations.

In April, Hayabusa shot the asteroid with a copper plate projectile, in order to loosen the rocks and expose the material under the surface, making it easier to harvest valuable samples. Last night, the probe Hayabusa-2 latched onto Ryugu, landing in the designated area successfully. The photos are simply stunning.

The photos are also a mythical reference, as Ryugu translates to “Dragon Palace” in Japanese and refers to a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient Japanese tale. In the story, the fisherman Urashima Tarō travels to the palace on the back of a turtle and returns with a mysterious box — an analogy to how Hayabusa will return with samples from the asteroid. Image credits: Jaxa.

“First photo was taken at 10:06:32 JST (on-board time) and you can see the gravel flying upwards. Second shot was at 10:08:53 where the darker region near the centre is due to touchdown,” JAXA tweeted.

The moment of touchdown. Image credits: JAXA.

“These images were taken before and after touchdown by the small monitor camera (CAM-H). The first is 4 seconds before touchdown, the second is at touchdown itself and the third is 4 seconds after touchdown. In the third image, you can see the amount of rocks that rise,” JAXA tweeted.

This is the second touchdown on the asteroid, after earlier this year, two small rovers landed on the Ryugu asteroid. The Hayabusa2 mission includes four rovers with various scientific instruments.

After it touched down, Hayabusa-2 collected a new set of samples and left Ryugu’s surface. If everything goes according to plan (and so far, it has) it will begin the 5.5 million-mile (9 million-kilometer) journey home towards the end of this year.

Subsurface material (such as the one blasted by Hayabusa) is particularly intriguing for scientists, because it has been protected from the harsh effects of cosmic rays and solar wind. By better studying and understanding these asteroids, researchers want to shed more light on the evolution of the solar system

NASA wants the future of spaceflight to be commercial — including the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most complex structures ever developed by mankind. It’s the largest object we’ve ever sent to space and can often be seen from Earth with the naked eye. It also serves as a habitable satellite for astronauts and as a space lab to conduct numerous and varied experiments.

Now, NASA wants to open the ISS to the commercial sector.

Construction of the ISS Integrated Truss Structure over New Zealand. Image credits: NASA.

“NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” said the agency’s chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit. “The commercialization of low Earth orbit will enable NASA to focus resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, as the first phase in creating a sustainable lunar presence to prepare for future missions to Mars.”

It’s not exactly a new idea. When the proposal for the ISS was first floated around during the Reagan administration, the potential to draw in commercial funding was very appealing. A wide array of commercial activities were expected to bring in billions of dollars, although that hasn’t really happened.

NASA spends around $3-4 billion a year operating the station and shuttling people to and from the ISS — that’s close to 50% of the agency’s entire space flight mission. NASA also isn’t the sole operator of the ISS: it’s a collaboration between NASA and four other agencies: the European Space Agency, JAXA (Japan), Roscosmos (Russia), and CSA (Canada).

All participants have pledged to maintain the station until 2024, but it will almost certainly carry on for longer than that. Simply put, too much has already been invested to abandon the ISS. Gilles Leclerc, head of space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, says there’s no way that can happen.

“It would be a waste. We cannot ditch the International Space Station. There’s just too much invested,” says Leclerc. “It’s quite clear, it’s unanimous between the partners that we continue to need a space station in low Earth orbit.”

The experiments carried out aboard have also proven invaluable, and the ongoing scientific research is constantly creating new knowledge — it’s not something that should be canceled. So instead, the agencies are looking for alternative options to attract funding. Already, more than 50 companies are already conducting commercial research, with promising results. NASA now wants to expand that, being open to discussing commercial partnerships with all entities that fulfill one of the following 3 conditions:

  • require the unique microgravity environment to enable manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application;
  • have a connection to NASA’s mission; or
  • support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy.

NASA also is enabling private astronaut missions of up to 30 days on the International Space Station, with the first such mission being scheduled no later than 2020.

Image credits: ISS.

It seems like a great idea on paper. Bringing in private astronauts or allowing commercial enterprises to carry their own experiments could generate massive income for the ISS, allowing it to perform its activities as usual, or even expand. However, whether this interest exists and exactly how much money could be raised remain a matter of speculation. NASA themselves have stopped short of discussing actual figures.

At the same time, there is the concern that allowing commercial capital to flow in could delay scientific experiments, or even put them on hold. NASA would become just one of the many entities working on the ISS, and it’s unclear whether the agency would continue to have priority on all the equipment it wants.

In the meantime, the harsh environment of low-orbit space continues to take a toll on the ISS. The United States and Russia are legally responsible for all modules they have launched, but the bill to extend the operations of the ISS until 2030 initially failed in the US House, despite passing unanimously through the Senate (it was later approved, in December 2018).

What about after that? Even in 2030, it’s unlikely that the ISS will be decommissioned unless something unexpected happens, but in order to continue, the ISS must undergo serious maintenance work to ensure its safety. Some modules might be taken over by commercial activities but at the end of the day, it’s still the national governments who will have to rise up to the challenge. Hopefully, they will.

Illustration showing the moment when the Hayabusa2 space probe makes a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita.

Japanese probe blasts the first artificial crater on an asteroid

Illustration showing the moment when the Hayabusa2 space probe makes a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita.

Illustration showing the moment when the Hayabusa2 space probe makes a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita.

The Japanese space agency (JAXA) denoted an explosive device on the surface of the Ryugu asteroid earlier this month. Now, Japanese scientists have confirmed that the blast created a crater with a diameter of 10 meters — the first artificial crater on an asteroid.

“Creating an artificial crater with an impactor and observing it in detail afterwards is a world-first attempt,” Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 project manager, said in a statement. “This is a big success.”

The crater was created by the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft which fired an explosives-carrying projectile from 500 meters above the asteroid’s surface. The goal was to discharge material from under the asteroid’s surface in order to probe its chemical composition. The idea is that this fresh material could shed light on the formation of the early solar system. The asteroid is believed to be made up of organic compounds and water from 4.6 billion year ago.

Footage taken by a camera detached from the space probe Hayabusa2 showing rocks on the asteroid Ryugu flying up three seconds after an impactor struck the surface. Credit: JAXA, Kobe University.

Footage taken by a camera detached from the space probe Hayabusa2 showing rocks on the asteroid Ryugu flying up three seconds after an impactor struck the surface. Credit: JAXA, Kobe University.

Earlier this year, the probe fired a bullet into the surface of Ryugu in order to blast dust off the surface. But as the asteroid is constantly bombarded by solar rays which can alter its properties, samples need to be taken from beneath the surface — hence the need for a crater-creating explosion. This time around, the Japanese mission made quite the mess, generating a ten-meter-wide crater. Initially, scientists predicted that the crater would be 3 meters in diameter if the surface is rocky and 10 meters in diameter if it is sandy.

“We can see such a big hole a lot more clearly than expected,” said Masahiko Arakawa, a Kobe University professor involved in the project. “The surface is filled with boulders but yet we created a crater this big. This could mean there’s a scientific mechanism we don’t know or something special about Ryugu’s materials.”

The $270-million-mission is scheduled to return to Earth with samples taken from the asteroid in 2020. The samples will help scientists answer fundamental questions about the formation of the solar system. They might also inform the space mining industry with regard to the economic potential for similar asteroids

Japanese rovers beam back more awesome pictures from asteroid’s surface

Credit: JAXA.

On September 21, two tiny rovers operated by the Japanese space agency JAXA made history by safely landing on the rugged terrain of an asteroid. Not too long after, JAXA released the first image, much to the delight of Earthlings. But it didn’t stop there — more pictures and even a 15-frame short video from the asteroid have been beamed back.

“I cannot find words to express how happy I am that we were able to realize mobile exploration on the surface of an asteroid” enthused Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 Project Project Manager, “I am proud that Hayabusa2 was able to contribute to the creation of this technology for a new method of space exploration by surface movement on small bodies.”

Credit: JAXA.

The two autonomous rovers, unceremoniously named Rover 1A and Rover 1B, were dropped by Hayabusa 2, their mothership, from a distance of 60 meters from the asteroid’s surface. JAXA engineers witnessed the moment with anxiety as rovers encountered rougher than expected conditions, with very few smooth patches around.

Credit: JAXA.

But the rovers proved to be sturdy, operating in optimal conditions across the surface of the space rock Ryugu, which measures only 900 meters across.

Taking advantage of Ryugu’s low gravity, the rovers hop across the surface of the space rock using a motor-powered internal mass that rotates to generate inertia.

To snap these unique photos, each rover is equipped with wide-angle and stereo camera. The rovers measure only 1 kilogram, each.

Credit: JAXA.

Credit: JAXA.

Expect even more amazing developments in the near future from JAXA’s rovers and spacecraft. The next stage will see the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander released onto the asteroid’s surface. The lander has enough power for a 12-hour mission, in which it will analyze the asteroid’s surface at two different sites.

Also, Hayabusa2 should make a landing itself later in October. Its task will be to collect samples and, hopefully, return them back to Earth.

Ryugu is thought to be billions of years old, a remnant of the early solar system. By studying it, scientists hope to learn more about the origin and evolution of our very own planet, but also what are an asteroid’s biggest weaknesses. At one point in Earth’s history, a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have science. Next time it happens, we want to be prepared!

History in the making: Japan lands two rovers on asteroid

After days of gripping suspense, the two small rovers finally landed on the Ryugu asteroid — and they’ve even sent a few postcards back home.

This photo shows the view from asteroid Ryugu from the Minerva-II1A. The probe is one of two that landed on Ryugu from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft. It’s the first time two mobile rovers landed on an asteroid. The image is blurred because it was taken during the rover’s descent. Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The rovers are part of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample-return mission. They were deployed from the spacecraft and successfully landed on Ryugu, and both are still in good condition.

In order to perform the deployment, the Hayabusa2 carefully lowered itself carefully down toward the surface, until it was only 55 meters (180 ft) above. Then, after the rovers were deployed, the shuttle went back up to 20 km (12.5 mi) above the asteroid.

Because Ryugu is so small and doesn’t have a significant gravitational field, the landing was particularly difficult, but this also allows the rovers to hop around the asteroid, taking photos as they go.

The 1kg rovers are equipped with wide-angle and stereo cameras, and are powered internal rotors, which propel the robots across the asteroid. The rovers also feature sensors that measure the surface temperatures, and Hayabusa2 itself carries sensors for remote sensing and sampling.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Underwater palace.” footer=””]Ryugu is an asteroid which measures approximately 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) in diameter. Ryugu was discovered in 1999, and its name refers to Ryūgū (Dragon Palace), a magical underwater palace in a Japanese folktale. In the story, a fisherman Urashima Tarō travels to the palace on the back of a turtle, and when he returns, he carries with him a mysterious box — something which is alluding to Hayabusa2 returning with samples[/panel]

Animation of Hayabusa2 orbit from 3 December 2014 to 29 December 2019.

But while this is already a remarkable achievement, the mission is still far from being over: the Japanese space agency still has two more deployments to complete — a larger rover called MASCOT in October and another tiny hopper next year. Then, the rovers have to collect samples, and board the shuttle again, returning to Earth for lab analysis. If everything goes according to plan, the shuttle will leave Ryugu in 2019 and will return back to Earth in 2020.

So far, the asteroid’s surface was rougher than expected, which brought another layer of difficulty to the mission. The surface is blackish-colored, and the asteroid has maintained its original composition for eons, as Ryugu is a particularly primitive asteroid type. Studying it could shed light on the origin and evolution of Earth and even the solar system. For now, we eagerly await the next mission checkpoints.

Researchers believe they’ve found a great place for a moonbase — thanks to a volcano

In a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, Japanese researchers describe what could be the site of a potential moonbase: inside a former lava tube.

Lava tube on Earth, in the Hawaii National Park. Image credits: Hermann Luyken.

All the manned missions that have ever reached the moon have been three days or less — and for good reason. The surface of the Moon is an extremely inhospitable place, with dramatic temperature changes, radiation, and meteorite impacts. If we want to establish a moonbase, we either have to build it, which would be extremely difficult, or we could take advantage of something that nature has already set up for us.

Lava tubes (or lava tunnels) are basically caves formed by flowing lava. Sometimes, lava flowing beneath the surface can solidify and form a hard crust which thickens and forms a roof above the still-flowing lava stream. After all the lava has drained or solidified, you’re left with a natural tunnel which can protect you from the hardships of the surface.

We know that the Moon has had rich volcanic activity as we can see the basaltic plains and astronauts even brought home volcanic rocks. Therefore, it’s very likely that lava tubes also exist. Furthermore, because the Moon has a much lower gravity than the Earth, these tunnels are likely much larger because they’re less inclined to collapse under their own weight. Understanding these features, researchers say, is important for a number of reasons.

These features could be immense. Here, a model of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube. Image credits: Purdue University/David Blair.

“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base,” said Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA, Japan’s space agency. “But knowing these things is also important for basic science. We might get new types of rock samples, heat flow data and lunar quake observation data.”

The problem is — how do you find these tunnels? In order to pinpoint them, Haruyama and colleagues first worked with scientists from the GRAIL mission, a NASA effort which created a high-quality gravitational map of the Moon. The gravitational field isn’t uniform across the Moon (or the Earth); density variations beneath the surface lead to positive or negative variations. Since lava tunnels are basically voids beneath the surface, the researchers were looking for mass deficits, sometimes called negative anomalies.

Gravitational map of the Moon, with positive (red) and negative (blue) anomalies. Image credits: GRAIL / NASA.

 

This was only the first step. After researchers identified these potential areas of interest with GRAIL, they analyzed radar data from the SELENE spacecraft. Whenever you send out a radar wave and it encounters a solid feature (say the surface of the planet), some of its energy is bounced back, and some of it continues through. That continuing energy might encounter an underground geological feature, and bounce off of that too. The radar’s receiver can pick up on all these bounces and get a picture of what’s going on beneath the surface. SELENE wasn’t built to detect lava tubes, but if you can identify a ceiling and a floor with a void between the two, you’re good to go.

With this method, the team identified several promising areas around an area called Marius Hill. These lava tunnels, the study reads, could serve as “pristine environment to conduct scientific examination of the Moon’s composition and potentially serve as secure shelters for humans and instruments.” They’re also spacious enough to host even large cities, data shows.

“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone,” said Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator and Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. “Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”

The Marius Hills Skylight, as observed by the Japanese SELENE/Kaguya research team. Image by: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

Clearly, having the shelter of these tunnels could prove extremely valuable for future expeditions. No more radiation, no more unpredicted impacts, and a large area to establish a base and research sites. Of course, before we do that, we probably need to go and see it for ourselves, but the fact that scientists know these features exist and where to look for them is already a big plus.

Journal Reference: T. Kaku et al. Detection of intact lava tubes at Marius Hills on the Moon by SELENE (Kaguya) Lunar Radar Sounder.

JAXA’s mission to fish for space trash thwarted by faulty tether

A recent JAXA space-tiddying mission has ended in failure after a vital piece of hardware failed to deploy, officials said on Monday.

Artist’s impression of the tether.
Image credits Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

We’ve gotten pretty good at sending stuff into space, but our recovery game hasn’t kept up. As such, there’s a lot of trash currently whizzing about in Earth’s orbit — old satellites no longer in use, pieces of old rockets, and all kinds of similar waste. There are over one million distinct bodies floating around if you count down to the really small bits, the ESA estimated in 2013.

And there’s only so much trash you can sweep under the rug before it gets out of hand. With that in mind, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a ship dubbed “Kounotori” to the ISS on Friday morning to try and sort this mess out.

Among supplies such as water and batteries, Kounotori (meaning “stork”) carried an experimental trash-capturing module that JAXA built with fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo.

The 700-meter-long (2,300 feet) electrodynamic tether — spun from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum — was designed to generate an electrical field while moving through our planet’s magnetic field, attracting junk to it. The idea was to anchor it to a spaceship and use the tether to slow down as many pieces of debris as possible. This would cause them to steadily drop towards the planet, touch the atmosphere, and burn up safely. A pretty solid plan.

The mission didn’t go as expected, however. JAXA encountered problems while trying to deploy the tether. Technicians tried to fix the problems for days but due to the limited time-window the mission could take place (the carrier ship used was launched in December towards the ISS and scheduled to re-enter the atmosphere on Monday) the agency had to abort the mission.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” leading researcher Koichi Inoue said. “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

Before the mission, agency spokespersons said that JAXA planned to take these missions on a regular schedule, and even to “attach one tip of the tether to a targeted object.” Hopefully, this setback won’t disrupt JAXA’s space-cleaning ambitions.

Going off-world is never easy and success is never guaranteed. But not cleaning up Earth’s orbit could lock us on the planet for good. And that’s something we don’t want at all.

So take heart JAXA, we’re counting on you.

 

Japan wants to land a rover on the Moon by 2018

Good news for space exploration: Japan’s space agency JAXA revealed plans to land a rover on the Moon by 2018, joining a very small club of nations that directly explored our planet’s satellite.

“This is an initial step and a lot of procedures are still ahead before the plan is formally approved,” a JAXA spokesperson told reporters.

Image via DesignTrend.

Of course, there are still some hurdles to pass, and the final ‘OK’ hasn’t been given yet, but if everything goes alright, then JAXA will use perfect soft-landing technologies to land an unmanned rover – the same technology which was proposed for a mission to Mars. The lander will use face recognition software found in digital cameras which will enable it to recognize craters on the surface and ensure a better maneuvering for landing.

The mission is estimated to cost between $83.4 million and $125 million, and will yield significant scientific value – it will also put Japan in an elite club, rivaling achievements of Asian countries India and China, which can both boast remarkable achievements – China’s Yutu lunar rover outlasted expectations and India successfully put a probe into orbit around Mars.

So far, the only countries that have sent rovers to the Moon are China, the US and the Soviet Union.

Japanese spaceship loaded with ISS trash burns after entering Earth atmoshpere

Artist impression of Japan's robotic cargo ship, the H-2 Transfer Vehicle, entering Earth's atmosphere. (c) JAXA

Yesterday, Japan’s unmanned space freighter Kounotori 2, of the H-2 Transfer Vehicle class, intentionally entered Earth’s atmosphere where it crashed and burned after its two months mission supplying the International Spate Station – with it a slew of junk off the space station was dumped.

Attached to the H-2 Transfer Vehicle was also a sensor which measured and transmitted various data back to scientists of the plunging inferno headed straight into the Pacific Ocean. The device is called Re-entry Breakup Recorder, or REBR for short – recorded temperature, acceleration, rotational rate and other data during the spacecraft’s high dive into Earth’s atmosphere. The REBR device didn’t need to be recovered, but data analysis could take 6 to 8 weeks to get successfully processed.

“REBR collected data during the breakup of the Kounotori 2 vehicle and successfully ‘phoned home’ that data prior to final impact,” said William Ailor, Director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, Calif. “In fact, it is still transmitting while floating in the ocean.”

Three paper origami cranes were packed aboard the Japanese cargo ship Kounotouri 2 before being released to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. More origami cranes were distributed both in the Houston and Tokyo mission control centers. (c) ESA/NASA/space.com

In a touching gesture, while the Kounotori 2 was still docked, ISS astronauts tried to share their sympathy for the Japanese people, who are still suffering greatly from the March 11 double catastrophe, by putting three paper cranes in the cargo spaceship they hand made.

“These are our extraterrestrial cranes, a symbol of hope, put into HTV for all Japanese people,” the astronauts wrote in a message accompanying the photos. “We are with you!”

The Kounotori 2 was a freighter operated by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, which is a major player in the $100 billion International Space Station project. Japan built the orbiting structure’s largest laboratory, called Kibo (“Hope”).

The spacecraft was about 33 feet (10 meters) long and 14 feet (4.4 m) wide, and carried cargo inside a pressurized compartment – which astronauts could retrieve after docking – as well as haul spare station parts on an unpressurized pallet to be retrieved by a robotic arm.

“The HTV-2 carried various important cargo, including spare units of the external ISS system and potable water for the crew, which has been mostly transported by the space shuttle up to now,” JAXA President Keiji Tachikawa said in a statement. “I believe that this success proves that the HTVs are reliable transportation vehicles essential for maintaining the ISS, and that Japan, as an international partner of the ISS, is eligible to play an important role for ISS operations.”

This is the second HTV cargo spaceship JAXA has launched, after the equally successful run of the HTV-1 launched in 2009. JAXA’s third cargo launch, the HTV-3, is scheduled for 2012.

Japan wants rockets with artificial intelligence

The Japanese seem to have not lost one inch of the determination to push science forward after the major earthquake, the tsunamis it generated, and the colateral damage that comes with such a tragic event (power shortages, infrastructure damage, and most of all, radiation danger from nuclear plants). They are now trying to trim the costs of space rockets by the use of artificial intelligence, creating a system that would be capable of diagnosing and even repairing its own malfunctions.

Yasuhiro Morita is the project manager for the current Epsilon launch and a professor at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science at JAXA, and he is pushing this idea fast. The new Epsilon rocket will hopefully feature some basic artificial intelligence when it will be launched two years from now. This AI will function in a similar way to the brain, identifying problems and suggesting ways to repair them.

If successfully created, these ‘smart rockets’ would perform tests and maintenance on themselves, thus dramatically reducing the costs for power and manpower needed to operate such a device. However, Japan is treating this problem with utmost care, stating that this development will take time, and complete control over flight and maintenance will not be available for several years.

Japanese probe returns home with asteroid dust

JAXA, the Japanese space agency is becoming more and more active these days, as Japanese researchers are getting involved in more and more ambitious projects. Recently, a probe they sent out returned home with grains of dust gathered from an asteroid, a feat without precedent in history.

The finding could provide valuable insight into the early history of our solar system, as well as give some clues on how it was formed. It is actually only the 4th set of samples recovered from outer space, after the matter collected by the Apollo missions, comet material by Stardust, and solar matter from the Genesis mission.

However, the probe went through some really hard times, after it lost contact with the homebase for seven weeks, after developing a fuel leak. Numerous experts from the US and Australia are also involved in the project, and all of them are really excited by the results.

“These results have exceeded our expectations. I’m not sure how you express something that surpasses your dreams, but I’m filled with emotion,” project chief Junichiro Kawaguchi said.

Hayabusa was launched in 2003 and it reached the asteroid Itokawa in 2005; after taking photos of the 500 long meter asteroid, the ship landed on it two times in November 2005. If everything goes according to plan, it will give us some insight on the birth of the solar system. The mineralogic sampling showed traces of olivine and pyroxene, minerals commonly found in basaltic rocks, such as the ones on the bottom of the ocean or the moon.

Japan plans a Moon base by 2020, built by the robots, for the robots

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While America seems to have lost most of its lunar ambitions, the same thing can't be said about developed Asian countries

While America seems to have delayed it’s Moon base ambitions, Japan seems to have no such plans; according to their own statements, they have absolutely no intention of letting perfectly good lunar lands go to waste. An ambitious plan of (just?) $2.2 billion investments is in the works at JAXA (Japan’s space agency), with the goal of landing humanoid robots on the moon by 2015, and actually having an unmaned base up and running by 2020.

The key to this seems to be the robots themselves, and who can do better at developing, constructing and maintaining such robots than the Japanese? However, more problems are bound to set in.

If everything goes according to plan, in 2015, huge 660-pound robots will land on the Moon rolling like tanks, equipped with solar panels, seismographs, high-def cameras and numerous other high tech scientific equipment. They’ll also have humanoid hands with the purpose of gathering rock samples and sending them to Earth via rocket.

This seems like a really aggresive timeline if you ask me, but is this really so far fetched ? I’m not really sure. But if you ask me, this is not the big question here. The big question is what will there be to gain ? Extracting minerals seems impractical by any standards; solar energy is out of the question, so what can there be to gain, practically? Remains to be seen. One thing seems to be certain though: the days of American technological superiority are fading fast.