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I have been trying to spruce up my online presence by building some new web pages (more about that soon) and by fixing the site I already have which everybody loves [crickets], um, which is to say Ferrebeekeeper!   Unfortunately trying new things doesn’t always work…so kindly forgive me if yesterday’s post looks a bit peculiar.  We will work with the web guru to get it all taken care of.  In the mean time, speaking of experimenting with new things, let’s check back in on JAXA spaceship Hayabusa2.


Artist’s conception of Hayabusa2 touching down on Ryugu

When last we checked in with Hayabusa2, the Japanese spaceprobe had entered orbit around Asteroid Ryugu (a carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, which is believed to be composed of pristine materials left over from the dawn of the solar system).  Hayabusa2 was deploying tiny 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) hopping droids to jump around the ancient ball of rock and snow and learn whatever they could.  These robots would be followed by a larger robot probe, Mascot, which would study the asteroid in depth before Hayabusa2’s glorious showstopping signature move–a descent to the surface in order to fire a projectile into the asteroid (in order to collect an asteroid sample).  That’s right: while Americans have been utterly transfixed by the bloviations of our felonious leader, the Japanese have dispatched a spacefaring robot to drop hopping mechanized lice on a primeval space snowball and then to pop a cap in it!  Respect to the Land of the Rising Sun!


The probe arrived in perfect condition back in September of 2018, but the next phase of the mission got off to a rocky start…literally!  JAXA expected Ryugu to be covered with fine powder, but it was covered with jagged rocks.  The tiny hopping bots MINERVA-II1 A and B were really meant to test the conditions for MASCOT, a shoebox like robot-probe with real scientific instruments.  On a prior mission these hopping probes were too enthusiastic and, after a single touchdown, they hopped magnificently but suicidally into the infinite void (presumably yelling inaudible robot slogans of honor).  Although conditions on Ryugu were not as expected, the second generation Minervabots did a better job this time: they delivered the necessary telemetry, astrionics, and surface conditions to bring the mission to the next phase.  Mascot was duly dispatched back in October and it operated faultlessly for 17 hours before its battery ran out and the active phase of its mission ended. [As an aside, I am finding it challenging to describe all of the things happening on a planetoid inhabited entirely by various sorts of robots]


Animation of Mascot probe hopping around Ryugu…such balletic grace!

On February 22nd 2019, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft descended to the surface of the asteroid and physically collected a substantial sample of the regolith by shooting the asteroid with a small projectile.  You can watch the video of the brief encounter here.  There are a lot of pebbles and shards flying around, but apparently the craft was fine and is now back in orbit while the ground crew looks for a final site to sample in April.

The Surface of Ryugu as imaged by a robot probe (JAXA)

This mission is super exciting, but the precious samples aren’t home yet.  We will keep you updated here on Ferrebeekeeper (and we will keep working on our own tech project of building a better site).



In 2016 the Japanese Space Agency launched a quarter-of-a-billion dollar x-ray observatory named Hitomi into Earth orbit.  The craft’s mission was to study extremely energetic processes at the far reaches of the universe.  It was hoped that the data Hitomi provided would allow astronomers to understand how the large scale structures of the universe came into being (how galactic superclusters form, for example).  The satellite initially worked perfectly, but, within 38 Earth days, the spacecraft was lost: a failure of attitude control sent it into an uncontrolled spin which caused critical structural elements to break apart.


The full story of what destroyed Hitomi is perhaps of greater immediate interest to living beings on Earth than how the meta-structures the universe came into being.  When everything went wrong for the ill-fated space observatory it was passing over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean.  For spacefarers, this region of the Van Allen Belt is analogous to what the Bermuda Triangle or the Namib Skeleton Coast is for sailors: it is a haunted and dangerous stretch of space.  Astronauts who travel through it report strange phantasmagorical dots and streaks in their vision, even when they close their eyes.   The Hubble Space Telescope does not make observations when it passes over the south Atlantic.  Controllers turn off its delicate systems.  The region is known to the world’s space agencies as “the South Atlantic Anomaly.”  Hitomi was not its first victim–it is surmised that the South Atlantic Anomaly was responsible for the failures of the Globalstar network satellites way back in aught seven.


The existence of the South Atlantic Anomaly was known long before that.  It was discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1, the first American satellite (which was equipped with a Geiger counter).  Perhaps the Soviets would have discovered the anomaly by means of Sputnik, but, because the Cold War made  scientific cooperation difficult, Australia did not hand over Sputnik data to the Soviets until later.  Suffice to say, the South Atlantic Anomaly is an anomaly in the Van Allen Belt, the torus-shaped field of charged particles which are held in place by the magnetic field of Earth.  Earth’s magnetosphere is important. Billions of years ago, Mars and Venus seem to have been exceedingly Earthlike, with water oceans and convivial atmospheres.  But neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetosphere and their oceans have perished and their atmospheres have changed into monstrous things….although we don’t know exactly what happened on either of our neighboring planets (and the present priorities here on Earth are to make Michel Dell and Howard Schultz as rich as possible at everyone else’s expense, not, you know, to understand what planetary scale forces could make worlds uninhabitable).


Um, at any rate, the magnetic field of Earth is created by the mysterious processes beneath our feet at the center of the planet.  The Earth’s inner core is believed to have two layers: an outer core of molten iron and heavy metals and an inner core of solid iron nickel alloy.  The inner core is about 70% of the volume of the moon and it is nearly as hot as the surface of the sun with an estimated temperature of (5,430 °C) or 9806 °F, but the molten outer core is only as hot as the surface of an orange star (2,730–4,230 °C; 4,940–7,640 °F).  Within the outer core, eddy currents form in the superheated metal. The complex relationship between these currents, the spinning planet, and the two core layers creates a geodynamo which produces the planet’s magnetosphere which in turn captures the particles which make up the Van Allen Belts.  However, the eddy currents cause the magnetic poles to invert every few hundred thousand years (we are currently overdue for such a flip).  The South Atlantic Anomaly is a manifestation of the “weather” in the molten outer core of Earth–a prelude to the magnetic polar flip.  First generation spacecraft used solid state components and had big ungainly robust circuitry.  Additionally they were hardened against radiation.  Some of today’s craft make use of delicate & elaborate microcircuitry which is prone to failure when struck by esoteric radiation particles.  This is how what happens far beneath our feet influences what happens to craft in outer space.

OK, we have a lot to get through this week. We have a new president coming along, and even though this charlatan may well usher in the end times, he is certainly known for grabbing ratings (among other things).  Also, last week, I promised to write about why I am having trouble with ‘Romance of three Kingdoms.”  It is a book about deceit, trickery, and cruelty as the tools of leadership. Perhaps now is a good time to talk about its dark lessons.  However before we get to any of that, today let’s take a quick trip off-world to our sister planet Venus (a planet which endlessly fascinates me) where some exceedingly strange developments have been in the works.

Venus is currently being monitored and observed by the Japanese Space Agency probe Akatsuki.  On December 7th, 2015, the probe spotted a huge crescent wave 6,000 miles long in the atmosphere of Venus. The probe lost sight of the massive bow shaped phenomena as it moved through its orbit, and, when it returned to position a few days later, the wave was gone.


So what produces a 6,000 mile long super cloud on a planet already known for extreme fast moving clouds of sulfuric acid.  Scientists theorize that this was a gravity wave.  Gravity waves are not too be mistaken for the gravitational waves of deep space (which are caused by distortion of spacetime from supermassive objects).  Instead a gravity wave is a wave propagated within a fluid (like air or liquid) through the effects of gravity.  When water flows over a sandbar, gravity restores equilibrium on the other side–which causes a wave effect.  This is a familiar pattern in all sorts of fluid dynamics–including clouds passing over mountains.  It is believed that the giant crescent wave within the atmosphere of Venus originated from the atmosphere flowing over vast mountain ranges on the surface.


Even if this is not as unfamiliar a phenomena as it might deem when first hearing the name and looking at the pictures, it is very beautiful and it is appearing on a scale hitherto unknown in terrestrial parts (although the supermassive planets have their own bizarre cloud structures which put it to shame.  for now lets just enjoy looking at the huge bow shaped cloud on the closest planet to Earth. Thanks JAXA for making this discovery! What will the strange hot caustic atmosphere of Venus do next?




Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).


The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!


The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.

There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

Electromagnetic radiation exerts pressure on physical matter.  The more the radiation is reflected from the surface it strikes, the greater the pressure–so sunlight presses harder on a mirror than on, say, an ostrich with the same surface area.  I’m not going to dwell on the physics underlying this fact (although I will provide a link), but rather on the remarkable ramifications.  Contingent on the amount of radiation, this force is rather weak. However, taken in aggregate, across a large surface, light (or any form of EM radiation) can move an object.  Hence…solar sails!

IKAROS (image from JAXA)Much in the manner that wind pushes a sailboat through water, light can push an object through space. Although using such a sail for space travel was demonstrated to be feasible in the laboratory, the great national space programs—NASA, Russia, ESA, and China—have never successfully tested a solar sail in interplanetary space (despite several failed attempts). However, this year on May 21st the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched the IKAROS solar sail.  IKAROS stands for “Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun”–an acronym which somehow is both unwieldy and an allusion to a badly botched aerospace venture (JAXA can be forgiven for the awkward name however thanks to the success of the mission). IKAROS is a square sail with a diagonal diameter of 20 meters.  It is made of polymer 7.5-micrometres thick.  A solar array is embedded in the sail to supply the craft’s power needs.  To provide attitude control, the sail also contains LCD panels with adjustable reflectivity.  Various sensors, dust counters and controls are located on different parts of the craft.

IKAROS Mission Plan (JAXA)

IKAROS deployed its sails when it was approximately 4.8 million miles from Earth (smoothly deploying a delicate lattice of sails in the grim void of outer space has been a major obstacle to this sort of mission in the past). The spacecraft is currently somewhere between Earth and Venus.  When it reaches the cloud planet, it will embark on a three year trip around the sun.

To follow up its success JAXA is planning to launce a 50 meter solar sail to the asteroid belt and Jupiter sometime late in the decade.  Other space agencies have taken note and are now playing catch-up with the Japanese.  NASA has plans for several solar sail missions in the coming years (provided poor national leadership does not botch the plans or scrub the funding). Since rocket fuel is heavy (and therefore a major sorce of missin costs), solar sailing technology has interested space agencies and space exploration enthusiasts for some time.  The Planetary Society, an international group dedicated to space exploration, has long advocated solar sails as a revolutionary step forward in space travel. In fact, the Planetary Society chartered a submarine launched Russian rocket to deploy its own solar sail into space but the mission sadly failed when the rocket malfunctioned.  Fortunately, the society has regained its old maniacal chutzpah and is launching a new solar sail mission (additionally, and even more importantly, it continues to lobby national governments for additional space funding)  

JAXA's next solar sail mission will apparently look like throwing a shuriken into an asteroid. Awesome!

In the near future, solar sails might be used for interplanetary missions or for de-orbiting old satellites and space debris (this latter task is growing in importance as humankind fills up near earth orbit with junk).  Hybrid drives which utilize solar sails and solar powered ion drives in tandem are also on the drawing board. In the farther future, who knows?  So far this is the only possible option for interstellar travel which utilizes technology humankind currently possesses (well, aside from ridiculous nuclear fission designs).  It has been proposed that giant space lasers could be used in tandem with the sun to accelerate probes to nearby stars.  Unfortunately such lofty prospects are still science fiction at present.

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