Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Japan's Hayabusa asteroid probe returns to Earth
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency confirmed the return of a space capsule last night which may contain a sample of asteroid Itokawa.
The seven-year mission saw the agency's Hayabusa explorer travel 4 billion miles to visit Itokawa, a 540 meter-long asteroid, collect a dust sample from its surface and return to Earth. A specially-designed capsule containing the sample parachuted back to Earth after being ejected from the Hayabusa spacecraft and landed in the Woomera area in southern Australia at 11.56pm Tokyo time.
The capsule has since been located and recovery in progress. Should the capsule contain a dust sample of Itokawa, this would be the first sample collected from an asteroid - and provide scientists with unique clues into the formation of the solar system.
Asteroid fragments examined to date have all had to endure intense heat during entry of the Earth's atmosphere which alters their composition. However, any sample contained in Hayabusa's capsule would have been protected from any atmospheric influence.
The completion of the 21 billion yen ($229 million) mission comes as Japan seeks to double the size of its space industry and as China and India increase investment.
Hayabusa, Japanese for “falcon,” had a series of mechanical problems, including fuel leaks and engine failures. It was launched in May 2003 and landed on asteroid Itokawa in November 2005.