Right on the heels of other exciting news for Japan’s Space Agency (JAXA), the HAYABUSA asteroid explorer spacecraft has just completed its four billion mile (six billion kilometre) round-trip journey and scientists around the world are keeping their fingers crossed that its sample return capsule contains the first asteroid dust ever collected.
Less than ten minutes ago Hayabusa (“Falcon”) broke up and incinerated in a big fireball over Australia. The sample canister was apparently successfully jettisoned, although it will still take ten to 15 minutes for it to parachute to earth. It is expected to land in the Woomera Prohibited Area in the outback of south Australia, and scientists will wait until daylight to retrieve it.
Hayabusa launched in May 2003, rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in September of 2005, carried out scientific observations of the physics and geology of the asteroid, and then landed on it in November 2005. While details of the landing are unclear, and the sample collection device failed, there is consensus that the spacecraft did sit on Itokawa’s surface and scientists are hoping that some asteroid dust made it into the sampling chamber as it scraped along the surface.
If Hayabusa did successfully bring some asteroid dust home, it will be only the fourth sample of space material brought back to earth – moon matter from the Apollo missions, comet matter from Stardust mission and solar matter from the Genesis mission.
Japanese scientists will have exclusive access to any samples for one year, but after that scientists from around the world can apply for access to bits of the asteroid material for their own research.
I was sitting on my roof waiting for this & I wasn't disappointed! It was a short but brilliant re-entry burnup for this fantastic spaceship! A bright & burning fireball in the NW night sky of Adelaide at ~11:22pm on Sunday, June 13th. Thankyou to all involved in getting this spaceship back to Earth!