Itokawa photographed from Hayabusa – 500 meters long
A capsule thought to contain the first samples grabbed from the surface of an asteroid has returned to Earth.
The Japanese Hayabusa container hit the top of the atmosphere just after 1350 GMT, producing a bright fireball over southern Australia.
It had a shield to cope with the heat of re-entry and a parachute for the final drop to the ground.
A recovery team later reported they had identified the landing zone in the Woomera Prohibited Range.
“We just had a spectacular display out over the Outback skies of South Australia,” said Professor Trevor Ireland, from the Australian National University, who will get to work on the samples
“We could see the little sample-return capsule separate from the main ship and lead its way in; and [we] just had this magnificent display of the break-up of Hayabusa,” he told BBC News.
The Hayabusa mission was launched to asteroid Itokawa in 2003, spending three months at the 500m-long potato-shaped space rock in 2005.
The main spacecraft, along with the sample-storage capsule, should have come back to Earth in 2007, but a succession of technical problems delayed their return by three years.
Even now, there is still some uncertainty as to whether the capsule really does contain pieces of Itokawa.
RTFA. Terrific tale of engineering and science expertise laboring three years to bring an experiment home.
Who knows? They’ll be out looking for the capsule parachuted into the desert, tomorrow morning. With luck – samples from an asteroid will be there for study.