Will Hayabusa's Success Lead to a Space Encore?

TOKYO—The heart-warming story of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which overcame failed engines, degraded solar panels, fuel leaks, and faulty communications to touch down on asteroid Itokawa and return to Earth, has captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And it could bode well for a follow-up mission.

The spacecraft's fiery demise in the skies above Australia last week has triggered blanket TV and newspaper coverage of the capsule's return to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) labs near Tokyo, where the payload will be analyzed for the presence of asteroid dust. Feature stories have explained how the composition of asteroids may provide clues to conditions in the early universe. Business page articles have highlighted the role of Japanese companies that built Hayabusa's engines, sensors, and instruments. And the JAXA visitor center in downtown Tokyo, featuring a model of Itokawa, is enjoying double its usual daily traffic.

Hayabusa's most important fan, however, just might be Naoto Kan, the country's new prime minister. Kan praised the mission in comments to the Japanese legislature last week and voiced support for a second asteroid mission. But it's not clear whether such high-level backing will translate into more funding.

A request for $19 million this year by JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) to begin planning Hayabusa 2 to launch in 2015 or 2016 was slashed to just $300,000. So Kan's kind words are welcome, says ISAS's Yasunori Matogawa. "But where will the money come from?" The budget for space science has been flat for years, he says, and shifting money from other space projects would "cause a lot of trouble." Kan's government has also pledged to reduce overall government spending.

The chances of a second mission might improve after researchers conclude whether the retrieved canister contains samples, which would be the first ever returned from an asteroid. The announcement, expected within the next couple of weeks, could influence decisions on the government's budget, now being drafted, for the fiscal year beginning next April.

Posted in Space, Asia