Space probe returns to Earth from trip to asteroid

A fiery burst of light over the Australian Outback marked the return of a Japanese space probe that scientists hope carried samples from an asteroid that could offer insights into the creation and makeup of the solar system.

It is the first time that a spacecraft has successfully landed on an asteroid and returned to Earth.

After traveling 4-billion miles (6 billion kilometers) in seven years, the Hayabusa explorer incinerated on re-entry just before midnight Sunday, after jettisoning a capsule expected to contain the first asteroid dust ever collected.

“We just had a spectacular display out over the outback skies of South Australia,” said Trevor Ireland, the only Australian scientist on the Hayabusa team. “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.”

The capsule parachuted to Earth within the Woomera Prohibited Area, a remote military zone 300 miles (485 kilometers) northwest of the South Australian state capital of Adelaide.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it had confirmed the position of the fallen capsule and recovery would take place early Monday. It will be sealed in an airtight vessel and taken to Japan for study.

Hayabusa, the $200 million project launched by the Japanese space agency in 2003, landed on an asteroid in 2005 and is believed to have collected samples of material from the surface that may shed light on the solar system’s origin and evolution.

Scientists hope to study how and when the asteroid was formed, its physical properties, what other bodies it may have been in contact with, and how solar wind and radiation have affected it.

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.

If Hayabusa is indeed carrying asteroid samples, it would be only the fourth space sample return in history — including moon matter collected by the Apollo missions, comet material by Stardust, and solar matter from the Genesis mission.

Preliminary analysis of the samples will be carried out by the team of Japanese, American and Australian scientists in Japan. After one year, scientists around the world can apply for access to the asteroid material for research.

Associated Press