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Solution : Combine Hitachi knowhow with new technologies to ensure a clean environment Solution : Combine Hitachi knowhow with new technologies to ensure a clean environment

  • Manufacturing

In June 2010, Hayabusa returned home to Earth. The samples it brought back were loaded into the curation facility. The first task was to take apart the capsule and remove the sample container from inside. Hiroshi Abe, project manager for the Hitachi Group, recalls how nervous he was at this stage.

It was evident in the air that not only Hitachi but also JAXA and the global space research community were paying close attention. The tension for this one task was extremely high, and we got a strong sense that failure was not an option.

Hiroshi Abe
Research & Development Group,
Hitachi, Ltd.

To collect the undoubtedly delicate samples without them being lost in the air, Hitachi developed its own special lid opening mechanism.

In this video: Opening the sample container

The challenge here was to keep the pressure inside and outside the container uniform so the fine samples did not scatter about. The team had to very carefully measure the opening of the lid and estimate the pressure inside the sample container so as not to send the sample flying due to the difference in air pressure. It was extremely painstaking work, and they had only once chance to get it right.
Finally, as a result of over one year of elaborate rehearsals, the JAXA Hayabusa curation team members succeeded in opening the container over the course of two days.

Collecting the Tiny Samples

After successfully opening the container, the curation team now had to retrieve the samples. But just as they had expected, there was nothing inside the sample catcher that could be confirmed with the naked eye.
Therefore, to retrieve the invisible matter that was likely stuck inside, two methods were employed. One was a micromanipulator to pick up the particles using static electricity, and the other was a spatula that would scrape them off the inner wall of the sample catcher.

Micromanipulator


This applies voltage to a quartz needle and picks up samples using static electricity.

Spatula


Attached to an arm, this scrapes samples off the catcher's inner wall.

In this video: How the tiny samples were collected from the sample catcher

To develop the spatula, a number of prototypes were designed in order to meet the machining accuracy demanded by JAXA. Hiroyuki Nishihara was in charge of this part of the project.

They wanted us to develop a spatula with as sharp a tip as possible, so sharp that the tip was almost transparent. If we didn't have the technological capabilities in our manufacturing facilities, I don't think we could have met JAXA's requirements.

Hiroyuki Nishihara
Central Research Laboratory, Hitachi, Ltd.

The samples were collected using these two methods. The next step was to analyze the fine particles invisible to the naked eye with an electron microscope to verify that they truly came from Itokawa.

Electron Microscope Confirms Extraterrestrial Material

The equipment used to analyze the fine samples believed to be attached to the spatula is called a scanning electron microscope (SEM). It is capable of analysis at a scale of nanometers (1 nm=0.000000001 m), with such precision that it can spot a 1 mm grain of sand 1000 km away. And through irradiation with an electron beam, the SEM can also distinguish objects invisible to the naked eye. Tsutomu Tanaka of Hitachi High-Technologies proposed the use of the SEM to JAXA.

In this video: Tsutomu Tanaka of Hitachi High-Technologies talks about the electron microscope used for analysis of the samples.

Using the SEM to examine the tip of the spatula revealed that over 1000 particles were attached. The results of their analysis confirmed that they were not from Earth.

In this video: JAXA reports the results of the particle analysis at a press conference

Overcoming a range of challenges, the project could finally fulfill its mission to distribute these precious samples to the world.

Customer:
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Industries:
Space Exploration

Region:
Japan

Release Date:
Dec. 2014

Products & Services:
Curation Facility

Solutions By:
Hitachi