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Hayabusa is a spacecraft used to test brand-new technologies developed for interplanetary flights. The most important part of its mission is to bring back samples from the surface of a celestial object - something that has never been tried before. But our hope is that all these new technologies will eventually allow us to travel freely through space, and to access natural resources throughout the solar system.
The Hayabusa mission has five primary objectives: 1) to conduct interplanetary flight with a new ion-engine propulsion system; 2) to perform autonomous navigation by determining its own location and landing on a target using its own calculations; 3) to collect samples from an asteroid; 4) to accelerate through space using ion engines in conjunction with an Earth swingby; and 5) to bring to Earth a capsule containing samples from an asteroid.
Hayabusa was launched in May 2003. After a journey of roughly 2 billion kilometers, the spacecraft reached the asteroid Itokawa in September 2005, and landed in November of that year. However, at that point Hayabusa met with extreme difficulties, including a fuel leak and a loss of attitude control, and its departure from the asteroid was delayed.
Hayabusa at last left for Earth in April 2007, and is scheduled to arrive home in June 2010. Whether it has successfully collected samples from Itokawa's surface will remain a mystery until its capsule safely returns to Earth, but nonetheless, determined to succeed, the project team has worked hard to ensure the safe delivery of the samples.
No one can predict what Hayabusa will encounter in the next three years, but the team has already overcome many challenges. In this section, Hayabusa project leaders reflect on their work, their challenges and their dreams for the future.