Hayabusa is the little spacecraft that could. Having survived countless technical challenges over its seven-year journey, the Japanese probe returned to Earth on June 13, disintegrating as planned in a blazing fireball over Australia’s nighttime skies.
But before it burned up in the atmosphere, Hayabusa released its precious cargo: a 40-centimeter-wide capsule that, scientists hope, contains samples of the asteroid the probe visited in 2005. Protected in a larger container, the capsule parachuted down to the Woomera military installation in South Australia, where ground teams recovered it on Monday.
Once scientists open the capsule, they will discover whether Hayabusa is the first mission ever to return samples from an asteroid. Bringing stuff back from beyond lunar orbit is technically challenging. In 2004, NASA’s Genesis mission crashed into the Utah desert when its parachute failed, losing much of its cargo of samples of the solar wind. In 2006, the Stardust mission successfully dropped off, also in Utah, some samples of Comet Wild-2.
Launched in 2003, Hayabusa reached its target, the asteroid Itokawa, two years later. But glitch after glitch stymied mission controllers as they tried to direct it to take samples from Itokawa. At one point, instead of flying extremely close to the asteroid as planned, Hayabusa actually settled on its surface for about half an hour.
It’s still unclear whether Hayabusa managed to scoop up any pieces of Itokawa into its sampling capsule, but many hope it managed to capture at least some particles of asteroid dust. Asteroids are of increasing interest now that the Obama administration has indicated that they might be a target for future human exploration.
The Hayabusa capsule will be flown back to Tokyo, as early as this week, and opened for analysis carefully a few weeks after that. Initial science results are not likely to come for several months.