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Challenge : Build a state-of-the-art curation 
facility to extract and examine the 
samples Challenge : Build a state-of-the-art curation facility to extract and examine the samples

  • Manufacturing

To trace the origins of this "other" Hayabusa project, we must travel back to May 2002, about one year before the launch of Hayabusa. That's when the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the predecessor of JAXA, approached Hitachi for some advice.

Their request: construction of the Hayabusa curation facility. This facility would be used to recover, analyze, and store the Itokawa sample from the capsule brought back by Hayabusa. Hiroyuki Gamo of the Hitachi, Ltd. Infrastructure Systems Company recalls the time the agency gave him a sketch of what it wanted.

At first, they told us that they wanted to make something so strong it would not be destroyed even if hit by a missile. These words made it totally clear just how important a facility this was to the researchers of JAXA.

Hiroyuki Gamo
Hitachi, Ltd. Infrastructure Systems Company

The curation facility required special equipment for handling the sample, an electron microscope for analyzing the sample, and a clean room in which to house the equipment. The Hitachi Group, with its wide-ranging technological expertise, was capable of fulfilling all of these needs, and agreed to undertake the construction.

Preventing Contamination and Loss of the Sample

The sample was brought back by Hayabusa from Itokawa after a seven-year, 6 billion km journey. To ensure that it could be utilized as the precious "key" that could unlock the mysteries of our Solar System's origins, Hitachi faced two challenges. The first was keeping the sample brought back from outer space from being contaminated by the Earth's atmosphere.

In this video: JAXA's Dr. Abe talks about the importance of the sample collected by Hayabusa

The second challenge was controlling air pressure. The samples, taken in space and sealed in a container within the capsule, were kept in a vacuum, in a hermetically-sealed state. Therefore, if opened to the air pressure on Earth, the samples could all scatter about. Masafumi Kanetomo of Hitachi, Ltd., who was in charge of the curation facility's design, was at a loss for what to do.

To keep the samples from scattering, the air pressure inside and outside the container had to be equal. But we didn't know what the pressure inside the container was. How could we overcome this challenge? I spent many days staring at drawings and pondering the design.

Masafumi Kanetomo
Central Research Laboratory, Hitachi, Ltd.

JAXA and Hitachi met numerous times, brainstormed ideas, and engaged in an ongoing process of trial and error. Finally, after numerous attempts, the design plan that received the green light was a combination of advanced technologies that would prevent the sample from being contaminated or being lost.

In this video: The structure of the clean chamber

A Lost Sample? And a Ray of Hope

Hayabusa had already been hit by a series of problems, but its tribulations weren't over yet. In December 2005, about two and a half years after its launch, it was announced that the Hayabusa may have failed to extract samples from the Itokawa asteroid.

Originally, the Hayabusa was supposed to fire projectiles at the surface of the Itokawa asteroid and collect the rocks and dust that rose from this impact as samples. But it was revealed that the projectiles themselves were in fact not fired. This failure came as a huge shock to everyone involved with the project. However, it was confirmed that Hayabusa did in fact touch down on the asteroid, giving the team a ray of hope.

Itokawa has very low gravity. Though Hayabusa's projectiles did not fire, the dust that whirled up from the mere impact of the explorer touching down may be inside the sample catcher.

With this in mind, the project team faced yet another challenge: how to handle samples so tiny they were invisible to the naked eye.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Space Exploration


Release Date:
Dec. 2014

Products & Services:
Curation Facility

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