July 6, 2010

Minute Particles Found In Hayabusa’s Pod

The Japanese space agency (JAXA) said Monday that its Hayabusa space probe, which returned to Earth last month, collected "minute particles" of what it hopes is asteroid dust from the potato-shaped Itokawa asteroid.

Scientists hope the samples could help reveal secrets about the origins of the solar system.

"We have started the opening process of the sample container of Hayabusa since June 24, 2010 and confirmed there are minute particles," JAXA told the AFP news agency.

The agency also said that it was not yet clear whether the particles are contaminants from Earth or possibly from Itokawa, which the space probe landed on during its multi-billion-mile journey. The results will not be ready for months.

Scientists believed materials from Earth were also among the particles found in the pod, said project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi.

He told a press briefing it is important that the pod was not empty, and was "glad that there is the possibility" that some of the material could be from the asteroid.

The capsule has not been fully opened yet, but researchers have found more than 10 specks visible to the naked eye, scientist Toshifumi Mukai told reporters at the briefing. It is possible these particles did not come from the asteroid, he conceded.

"I have a feeling that they are not cosmic dust," he said, adding that it was also possible that they were from deep space.

Scientists had found two separate minute particles using an electron microscope. The particles were slightly larger than 10 microns each. One micron is equal to one-millionth of a meter.

When the space probe was launched in 2003, the canister was open. So it is very possible that the particles may have originated on Earth, a JAXA spokesman said.

After a technical problem that left the probe in the dark with no contact with JAXA for several weeks, the mission to land on the asteroid was delayed for three years, until it came back into alignment with the Earth.

After seven years in space, the pod was fired back toward Earth by the Hayabusa probe.

Researchers at JAXA's Sagamihara Campus near Tokyo, have teamed with NASA to open the multi-layered canister to reveal its contents.


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