It isn't often you get to witness a brilliant meteor as bright as the Moon and know exactly when and where it will appear. On June 13, we did just that—but we had to travel halfway around the world to see it.
by don hladiuk and alan hildebrand
The event was the reentry of the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid probe and its Sample Return Canister (SRC) that, with luck, was bringing back bits of the asteroid Itokawa, which Hayabusa (Japanese for "falcon") orbited and landed on in 2005.
To view the reentry, we travelled to Woomera, South Australia, the site of a large missile-testing area in the Australian outback and the landing zone for Hayabusa. Our plan was to set up cameras north of the roadblock on the Stuart Highway so that we would have the best viewing angle of the reentry. We had previously documented the reentry of the NASA probes Genesis (in 2004) and Stardust (in 2006). But Hayabusa was special. With this reentry, the main spacecraft would follow behind the SRC and break up in the atmosphere. The SRC, with its protective heat shield, would survive.
The night of the reentry was frantic! Late-developing clouds forced us to drive up and down the highway in search of clear skies. Then the clouds mysteriously disappeared. So we set up our cameras at our original site under a spectacular moonless sky, with the southern Milky Way arching overhead.
As predicted, at 11:21 p.m., local time, a glowing dot appeared low in the western sky. Entering the atmosphere at an amazing 47,000 kilometres per hour, the object brightened to more than (continued on page 33)
by Ray Villard
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