June 13, 2010

Asteroid Probe Returns To Earth After 7 Years

The Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft returned to Earth on Sunday, landing in the remote Australian outback.

The spacecraft, which spent the last 7 years on a mission to explore an asteroid, reached the potato-shaped Itokawa asteroid two years after leaving Earth in 2003.  Its mission was to collect samples of the asteroid, which may hold clues to the origins of the solar system.

The spacecraft burned up during re-entry of Earth's atmosphere, but it released a heatproof sample canister before doing so.

Witnesses said the probe moved brightly across the southern winter sky over the Woomera weapons testing range in South Australia state on schedule at around midnight.

"It was like a shooting star with a starburst behind it. It was fantastic," one witness told Reuters.

JAXA said in a short statement that it had located the canister in the Woomera Protected Area, which is a restricted military zone in the South Australian desert, using a helicopter.

The Australian Associated Press agency said that the capsule came to Earth shortly before midnight.

Japan's Kyodo News agency said that scientists could recover the capsule as early as Monday.

This is the first spacecraft that made contact with an asteroid and returned to Earth.

Hayabusa is a $200 million project that is believed to have collated samples of material from the surface of an asteroid that may shed light on the solar system's origin and evolution.

The spacecraft was originally due to return to Earth in 2007, but a series of technical glitches forced it to miss its window to maneuver into the Earth's orbit until this year.

If Hayabusa successfully collected asteroid samples, then it will be only the fourth space sample return in history, including moon matter collected by the Apollo missions.

A team of Japanese, American and Australian scientists in Japan will carry out preliminary analysis of the samples.

After one year, scientists around the world can apply for access to the asteroid material for research.


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