June 24, 2010

Gas Discovered In Hayabusa Capsule

JAXA announced today that it has found traces of gas in a capsule thought to contain asteroid dust that was brought back to Earth after a multi-billion-mile space journey.

Japan's space agency said that researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Sagamihara Campus in Kanagawa started to open the Hayabusa capsule -- a process expected to take about a week.

They plan to analyze the inside of the container by using an optical microscope. 

A JAXA spokeswoman said a trace of gas was collected when opening the capsule.

"We still don't know exactly what kind of gas it is, but the researchers confirmed a trace of low-pressured gas in the capsule," she said.

Scientists hope that dust particles scooped up into the capsule could help reveal secrets about the origins of the solar system.

"If the capsule contains fragments of at least 10 micron, researchers can make an analysis," the spokeswoman said.

However, it will take at least a few more months before determining whether the sample comes from the Itokawa asteroid or not.

After a seven-year journey, the heat-proof pod was fired back to Earth by the Hayabusa probe earlier this month, three billion miles away.

Hayabusa was plagued with technical problems, which at one stage spun out of control and lost contact with JAXA for seven weeks, delaying the mission for three years.

Once it finally latched onto the Itokawa asteroid, a pellet-firing system designed to stir up dust malfunctioned, leaving it unclear how much material was collected.

Scientists expect to at least recover some asteroid dust from the mission.


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