ADELAIDE, Australia – A team of scientists flew to the Australian Outback today to recover a Japanese space capsule they hope contains the first-ever asteroid samples that could provide clues into the creation of the solar system.
The Hayabusa explorer returned to Earth overnight after a seven-year, 4-billion-mile journey, burning apart on re-entry in a spectacular fireball just after jettisoning the capsule. It was the first time a spacecraft successfully landed on an asteroid and returned to Earth.
NASA scientist Scott Sandford said it was a relief to watch the re-entry and see the capsule had successfully detached and parachuted to Earth.
“During a mission critical event like a re-entry, there’s a whole series of things you’ve got to get right to make it work, and they all seemed to have come off without a hitch,” said Sandford, an astrophysicist and one of the team members who will research the samples. “It’s a great testament to the design and operation of the spacecraft.”
Two helicopters were taking scientists to the capsule’s landing site in the Woomera Prohibited Area, a remote military zone 300 miles northwest of the South Australian state capital of Adelaide.
It could take many hours to retrieve the capsule and collect samples, which will then be taken to Japan for study, he said.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the spacecraft in 2003 toward an asteroid called Itokawa. After taking photo images from all angles of the 1,640-foot-long asteroid, Hayabusa landed on it twice in late 2005.
The craft was designed to shoot a bullet into the surface of the asteroid that would crush and propel material through a long tube into a sample collection container.
There is no certainty the bullet actually fired, scientists say, but they believe the impact of the tube’s landing would have forced some material upward and into the collection chamber.
Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007, but a series of technical glitches – including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of electricity-storing batteries – forced it to miss its window to maneuver into the Earth’s orbit until this year.