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EDITORIAL | Hayabusa Success Can Still Inspire Space Sector 13 Years On

Japan's scientific and technological capabilities have declined since that inspiring experience. It's not too late to build again on what the Hayabusa achieved.



NASA's OSIRIS REx is the latest asteroid probe. (Graphic image provided by NASA)

A capsule has been recovered containing rock samples collected by NASA's OSIRIS REx spacecraft from the asteroid Bennu. This is the third successful recovery of samples from an asteroid, following Japan's Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions. 

The first Hayabusa overcame a number of serious problems to land on "Asteroid 25143 Itokawa." It recovered surface samples and then returned to Earth in 2010. Its achievement paved the way for the success of this United States version of the Hayabusa. 

In fact, the US team handling the asteroid probe reportedly carefully studied the first-generation Hayabusa mission. It used data gleaned from it as reference information for planning and other purposes. 

It is very significant that Japan's space technology and experience have become needed and respected by the US, a major player in space exploration

Becoming a country that is needed and respected by the international community and contributes to humanity in a wide range of scientific and technology fields must be a cornerstone for our national security. Furthermore, it should not be limited just to space. 

Artist's impression of Hayabusa2 above asteroid Ryugu (© Akihiro Ikeshita)
Engineers open the capsule of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in a clean room at a US military facility in Utah, September 24 (Photo provided by NASA)

Planning the Missions After Hayabusa

Following the first Hayabusa's asteroid exploration, Japan's Hayabusa2 and the US OSIRIS REx projects started almost simultaneously. Furthermore, Japan and the US repeatedly exchanged information and engaged in discussions to develop their respective plans. That the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS REx missions both succeeded is the result of this Japan-US competition and cooperation.

Scientists hope that rock samples brought back from asteroids may provide clues about the formation of the solar system and the origin of life on Earth.

The recovery team is packing the OSIRIS REx capsule that landed in the Utah desert on September 24. (Provided by NASA)
A capsule of Hayabusa2 samples from Ryugu is recovered by JAXA in Australia, in December 2021 (provided by JAXA)

Asteroid probes in themselves do not directly translate into economic growth. Nevertheless, the trailblazing achievement of the original Hayabusa and the success of Hayabusa 2 have enhanced Japan's standing in the world. These economic ripple effects are also important. Moreover, the bedrock motivation for our science and technology policies should be their contribution to humanity and the international community.

The Importance of Small Inspirations

A popular movie made about the original Hayabusa's mission served to get many children interested in space and science. Many Japanese drew encouragement from the Hayabusa team's "never-give-up" attitude. And we were inspired by their "trying everything possible" determination, no matter how serious the difficulties they faced.

Ken Watanabe (front row, center) appears at an event for the movie "Hayabusa: The Distant Return" with the full-sized Hayabusa model used in the filming and 174 engineers who worked on the actual Hayabusa. November 22, 2011, in Takanawa, Tokyo. There were also two other movies made about the Hayabusa story. (©The Sankei Shimbun)

Thirteen years have passed since that moving and inspiring experience. Meanwhile, Japan's scientific and technological capabilities continue to seriously decline. And the country's space sector is enveloped in a bleak mood due to repeated failed rocket launches. 

Even if they do not generate as much drama as the first-generation Hayabusa, establishing innovative technologies that are needed by other countries will enhance Japan's presence in the world and offer clues on how to break out from the prevailing mood of stagnation.

JAXA's lunar probe, SLIM. (Image provided by JAXA)

In that regard, we look forward to the small-scale lunar exploration lander SLIM, launched in September, successfully achieving a pinpoint landing on the surface of the moon.

Let's do everything we can to build on the accomplishments of the original Hayabusa.



(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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