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Hayabusa capsule
The sample container from the Hayabusa-1 spacecraft contains dust from the Itokawa asteroid. It is being opened in Tokyo. (credit: JAXA)

The diary of Juhzoh Okita, exobiologist


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BBC: Hayabusa asteroid-sample capsule recovered in Outback
By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News
June 14, 2010

The Japanese space capsule which landed in the Australian Outback on Sunday night (local time) has been recovered. The Hayabusa pod was picked up by a helicopter team and transferred to a control centre on the Woomera Prohibited Area. The canister, which is believed to hold the first samples ever grabbed from the surface of an asteroid, will now be shipped to Tokyo. The Japanese space agency (Jaxa) says the capsule looks to be intact.

The return was the culmination of a remarkable seven-year adventure, which saw Hayabusa visit asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and attempt to pluck dust from its surface before firing its engines for home. The $200m mission encountered many technical problems, from being hit by a solar flare to experiencing propulsion glitches. But each time an issue came up, the Japanese project team found an elegant solution to keep Hayabusa alive and bring it back to Earth - albeit three years late.

“We're pretty confident there'll be something inside the spacecraft.”
--Dr. Mitchell Tolenski, Nasa Johnson Space Center

Diary entry, June 18

The Hayabusa capsule arrived at the Sagamihara campus today! They brought it in inside a big yellow container. Everybody was beaming. This is a great day for our space program. Now it’s time to get to work!

I was so excited that I arrived at the lab an hour ahead of schedule, only to discover that I was one of the late ones! Everybody is so excited that they all wanted to start early. We all suited up in our protective suits and went through the airlock into the clean room. We started by taking the sample container out of the reentry vehicle frame and examining it. It is pristine. No visible damage to the exterior that might have allowed in any contamination. Despite this, we took swabs from several spots on the sample container and have sent them to the contamination lab for analysis. There they will be compared to the samples taken from the landing site. After that we performed a CATScan of the canister. If we are lucky, we will detect asteroid dust on the exterior of the sample collector. Even though such dust would be contaminated by Earth, our view is that if the sample container has asteroid dust on the outside, we probably have a good chance of dust held in sterile conditions inside the container.

Although we have practiced for this, it still took us longer than expected. When you handle the real thing, which may have dust from another world inside, you move extra carefully!

Some day I will describe this all in greater detail, but we are less concerned about dust from Itokawa getting out of the containment vessel than we are of contamination from our air and bodies getting into it. After all, Itokawa does not have organics on it that we need to worry about, but we don’t want to spoil our samples.

June 21

Back at work after the weekend! We are all still excited. But even with yesterday off, everybody was looking pretty tired today. More tests to examine the container for damage, leaks, contamination, etc. Things went slower than expected because of a problem with some of the air filtration equipment. Unfortunately, the CATScan came back negative, meaning no dust was found on the outside of the container. We still have high hopes for finding asteroid dust inside the container, but it would have been nice to have that confirmed now.

Drinking and karaoke tonight. Did not get home until after eleven. Kaori is so supportive even though last month I told her I would try to come home earlier from now on. She knows how important this work is.

June 22

Slightly behind schedule, but nothing to worry about. Yoshi has built in some slack for the schedule and we will be caught up as long as nothing goes wrong. Today’s big event was removing the outer locking mechanism for the sample canister. Shiro arbitrarily decided on another contamination test of the surface underneath the locking mechanism. I personally think that this is unnecessary—after all, if there is no contamination on the exposed surfaces, why should we worry about unexposed surfaces? But it is possible that the assembly was contaminated on Earth and we don’t want to discover “alien bacteria” only to learn that it was because somebody sneezed on the spacecraft in 2003. Not like the Americans with their Surveyor!

June 24

Over lunch today, Yoshi and Shiro got into a bit of an argument over where we should send Hayabusa-2. I think that is premature. It has not even been funded yet, and they are talking about it like it is ready to launch. But those two have seemed short-tempered lately. I finally broke up their argument when it got heated and others in the cafeteria started looking at us, but they both gave me nasty looks when I tried to calm them.

Had a lot of fun with the guys at the karaoke restaurant tonight. Kato and Shima had everybody laughing with some silly duet. But Yoshi should never be allowed to sing Bruce Springsteen again!

Did not get home until 11:30 again. Kaori had gone to sleep. I was annoyed about this. She should be waiting for me!

June 26

Success! Today we finally FINALLY opened the sample container and saw asteroid dust! Yes, quite a bit of it! (Only one member of the team had bet that we would not find anything, but even he was happy despite losing his money.) Not only dust, but even some grains, up to 1–2 mm! Our little bird must have bounced around the surface of Itokawa and kicked up a lot of dirt into the sample container! Now not only do we have an engineering success, but a scientific one as well!

I am so proud. Japan has now done something that no other country has done, return samples of an asteroid! Not even the Russians or the Americans have done this! Even our American team members were beaming.

Finally the boss told us to calm down and get back to work. We were very diligent and efficient. We began taking sample scrapings and curating them. We documented everything with photographs.

Nobody wanted to leave work. We would have stayed all night. But at 8 pm the boss ordered us to leave and told us to go straight home and rest. “No drinking!” he yelled. Kaori was very surprised when I came home so early. She wanted to cook me a dinner, but I told her no and we sat at the table and ate sandwiches as I told her how lucky we were. I know that she thinks this is just dirt, but she did a good job of being enthusiastic for me. Had a hard time getting to sleep I was so excited.

June 27

A number of the guys looked tired today. I guess they had trouble sleeping last night too. Shima called in sick. And it is not easy working both Saturday and Sunday. We did more careful sample removal.

After work, we went out drinking and wandered through several bars. The Americans tried to keep up with us, but I have yet to meet an American scientist who can drink as much as a Japanese scientist can! Well, I should correct myself—our good Shima proved that he cannot hold his liquor! (I will not tell his wife what happened, though. Hah!) Got home after 11. I know that Kaori is mad at me for staying out so late when I promised her I would not. I will have to do something to make it up to her. Maybe buy her flowers.

June 29

More sample curation. Yes, I know this is getting repetitive. It’s just hard to say anything new about taking samples and sealing them in little tubes. We have to keep doing this until we have cleaned up the entire sample container and nobody will do any sample analysis until the cataloging is done. We did ship off several samples to Houston. That was not the original plan. The original plan was to finish all curation and then decide who got what samples. But our plucky little spacecraft has collected so much dust that the head of our agency made an executive decision to be generous and share some with the Americans now. That decision is “above my paygrade” as the Americans like to say.

Shima still out sick. Maybe it is not a hangover that ails him.

Forgot to get Kaori flowers yesterday and today. Feel like a bad husband.

June 30

Yes, more sample curation. Shima was back in today, looking like something spit up by a cat. After he made a few mistakes the boss called him out of the clean room and down to his office, then sent him home.

Another night drinking and karaoke. Forgot to get Kaori flowers AGAIN! Sent myself a text message as a reminder. Tomorrow I will take a lunch break and I will go online and order the most expensive flowers I can for my supportive wife. I would hate to find alien dust and lose my wife.

July 1

Yoshi and Kato both looked sick today. Boss sent Yoshi home early after he nearly threw up inside his containment suit. As Kato was leaving, it looked like he had a nosebleed. Shima not in. I heard later that his wife called in saying that he was acting very angry and refusing to go to the doctor.

July 2

Yoshi back in and looking better. When I asked him how he felt, he snapped at me and said he was fine. Why is everybody so short-tempered lately? Still no Shima. Kato looked horrible and then disappeared in the afternoon. I feel fine, by the way. But it is hard curating samples when we are short-handed.

July 3

Nobody was allowed in the clean room today even though we all agreed to work. Last night a special inspection team discovered a containment breach. They were there all night. We waited around for a briefing that never came. And we did no work at all. I went out with some of the guys, but nobody was up for karaoke. We spent all evening talking about the containment breach. What could have gone wrong? Does this mean we contaminated the samples, or does it mean that the samples contaminated us?

July 4

Boss sent us all text messages last night telling us they are still investigating the containment breach, and not to come to work on Monday, but no other details. Now I’m really worried. Did I do anything wrong? Did I follow procedures? Could I lose my job over this?

Kaori went out shopping with her girlfriends and I just sat home and brooded. Tried calling Shima, but nobody answered the phone. Thought about calling Kato.

July 5

Shima is dead.

I got a text message from one of the Americans, Abell-san. He said that Shima’s wife had taken him to the hospital and that he died last night. Worse, she was feeling ill too. I did not tell Kaori. She left and took the train to Nagoya to see her mother early this morning. She left some notes on the table about food, but I wasn’t hungry. Late in the day I thought about calling the guys to go to dinner, but felt too lazy to go out, so I sat down in front of the television with some noodles and soup. Kaori must have come home late. I woke up in the lounge chair and she had turned off the television and covered me with a blanket.

Damn. I never got Kaori the flowers!

Hayabusa capsule
Harbingers of the zombie apocalypse. (credit: JAXA)

July 9

I do not know where to start. So much has happened this past week.

Tokyo is burning.

Tuesday was when it went crazy. We had a staff meeting where we were told that the contamination was bad—dust from some of the samples had not only leaked into the clean room, faulty seals on the air supply system meant that it had probably made it into our breathing air. From a scientific standpoint this should not have been so bad, because it did not mean that our air had contaminated the samples. And who cares if we breathe asteroid dust? It falls on Earth every day in the form of meteorites. But then the boss said something horrible: some of the samples tested positive for organic compounds, and they were worried that what contaminated the air might have affected Shima.

They told us they were going to take samples from all of us. A nurse took blood samples from several of us, starting with me. Kato came in late, looking horrible and acting irritated. When the nurse went to take his blood, he attacked her! He started punching her, then bit her, tearing at her throat like a wild animal. She started screaming and fell to the floor.

After that, it went fast. I was on the other side of the room, but several guys were trying to pull Kato off of her and he fought back, he bit several of them.

That’s when I saw the nurse rising up from the floor. Her white smock was covered in blood as it ran down from her neck. But it was her eyes that scared me. They had turned black.

She attacked one of the men who was trying to wrestle Kato off of someone, and in moments he turned on Hikaru, hitting him repeatedly with a chair and I watched him die in front of my eyes. There were maybe fifteen people in the room when it started, but only two of us got out without being attacked, me and Tetsuya. Tetsuya ran down the hall, chased by Yoshi, whose eyes had turned black. I never saw Yoshi get bitten! But he had been sick like Kato, right? How many of our people had been sick? Kato. Yoshi. Shima. Shima’s wife…

I ran in the other direction and got away. I got to one of the little-used administrative areas which was empty. I locked the door, turned off the lights, and hid, terrified, as I heard more and more screams in the hallways. A few minutes later I heard what sounded like gunshots. But who had a gun? Then I realized that some of our guards had guns. It took me a long time to recover, only after the screams and the yelling had died down.

Maybe half an hour later I heard multiple crashes outside the building. I crept over to a window and looked out. I am on the third floor. Below a car had crashed into another car. It was chaos on the street. People were running. Screaming, and they were being chased. I saw Abell-san running after a pedestrian on the street. Even from the third floor I could see the blood dripping from his chin, an expression of rage on his face. I could not see if his eyes were black.

There were bodies. Some of them did not move at all. And some of them started moving again after a few moments. I sank down and crawled back into my hiding space.

Only then did I think about trying to communicate with the outside world. But my cell phone was back in the other room. I carefully poked my head out from my hiding space and looked for a phone. I retrieved it and dragged it under the desk with me. I was not sure who to call. Finally I decided to call the Tokyo police. I called saying that there was an accident at the lab. Contamination. The dispatcher told me that they knew about “the riots” and that police had been sent to respond. I hung up. But after a minute or two I thought that she might not have realized what I was saying. The police thought this was rioting! Just as I picked up the phone again, there was loud banging on the door and then yelling. Somebody was outside! I froze. Too terrified to move. I realized that as soon as I made a sound, someone would come and bang on the door. They wanted in! I finally worked up enough courage to shove one of the heavy lab tables against the door, but it brought more of them and they stayed outside the door banging and trying to get in for nearly two hours.

After they went away I picked up the phone again and tried to call Kaori. The phone rang and rang and finally the answering machine picked up. I tried her mobile phone, but it went straight to voice mail. I left her whispered messages telling her to get indoors and barricade herself. I tried both phones a few hours later and still no answer, but when I hung up the second time I must have made too much noise, because suddenly somebody was banging at the door again.

That’s where I have been since Tuesday. I kept telling myself that rescue would come, but it never did. Wednesday morning I saw a few plumes of smoke, and late in the day I started to see it spread. There were multiple fires around the city. The windows did not open, they were tight, but occasionally I could hear screams outside. There were no cars. I looked down the street as it got dark the second night and I thought I saw some military vehicles pull through an intersection, but then nothing.

When I tried calling Kaori at home again, I got an automated message saying the phone lines were not working.

I found a laptop computer and pulled it under the big desk with me and turned it on. The wifi was still working. I went to a news site. It said Tokyo was in chaos. The infected were everywhere. The plague seemed to spread by biting and immediately threw people into a rage. They thought it started at a hospital—Shima’s hospital? But now they knew that it started with us. There were reports of fires around the city. I saw something about Houston being infected. We sent samples there, didn’t we? The wifi failed.

Yesterday afternoon the power went out. I have some flashlights and some food from one of the desks. I am writing this on paper. It has been quiet in the hallway for the past twelve hours. I will wait a little longer and then I will have to venture out. I don’t have any weapons. The closest thing I found was Shima’s umbrella. But I have seen the rage in the infected. An umbrella will not help me.

I smell smoke.

I miss Kaori. I wish I had bought her the flowers.


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