Sky over Australia to be lit up by returning asteroid probe
The Hayabusa probe was launched by Japan in 2003.
A Japanese spacecraft that visited an asteroid in 2005 is returning to Earth this weekend and should put on a brief, but spectacular, light show for fortuitously placed Australians late on Sunday.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Asteroids
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The Hayabusa probe was launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on May 9, 2003 and rendezvoused with the Itokawa asteroid on September 12, 2005. [Photos of Japan's asteroid mission.]
Now it is set to land back on Earth, hopefully with asteroid bits in tow.
IN PICTURES: Asteroids
Like a Shooting Star
The Hayabusa spacecraft will enter the Earth's atmosphere at a rather shallow angle of 12 degrees and a speed of 7.6 miles per second (12.2 kilometers per second), and is expected to impact Earth in South Australia near the Australian Defense Force facility at Woomera. The Woomera Prohibited Area, as it is officially known, stretches for 49,000 square miles (127,000 square kilometers) in the northwest of South Australia.
The time of reentry is scheduled for 13:51 GMT Sunday, which corresponds to 11:21 p.m. local time for Woomera. Australia Department of Innovations' Michael Green said people in the vicinity should be able to see the spacecraft's reentry.
"There will be obviously a reentry trail that will be visible, weather permitting, and that will be like a shooting star in the sky as it comes in to Woomera," he said.
According to NASA, the fireball-like meteor effect created by Hayabusa might attain a peak brightness of magnitude -6.8. This would be 12 times brighter than the planet Venus, which is currently visible in the western sky for a couple of hours after sunset.
The range of visibility is somewhat uncertain, but could extend anywhere from about 400 to 700 miles (600 to 1,100 km) centered on Woomera. Places that have a good chance of seeing the reentry trail include Leigh Creek and Andamooka (to the north-northeast of Woomera) and Port Augusta (to the south-southeast of Woomera).
Adelaide, the capital of South Australia and Australia's fifth-largest city, with a population of more than 1.28 million, could be right on the edge of the visibility zone and might possibly see the bright streak very low on their north-northwest horizon.
The Hayabusa spacecraft met with the asteroid 25143 Itokawa as planned and returned spectacular images of this cosmic rock, which measures roughly 1,700 by 800-feet (540 by 240 meters).
After arriving at Itokawa, Hayabusa studied the asteroid's shape, spin, topography, color, composition, density, and history.