Hayabusa asteroid-sample capsule recovered in Outback

Hayabusa on the ground (Jaxa) Jaxa says preliminary inspection indicates the capsule is intact

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The Japanese space capsule which landed in the Australian Outback on Sunday night (local time) has been recovered.

The Hayabusa pod was picked up by a helicopter team and transferred to a control centre on the Woomera Prohibited Area.

The canister, which is believed to hold the first samples ever grabbed from the surface of an asteroid, will now be shipped to Tokyo.

The Japanese space agency (Jaxa) says the capsule looks to be intact.

The return was the culmination of a remarkable seven-year adventure, which saw Hayabusa visit asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and attempt to pluck dust from its surface before firing its engines for home.

The $200m mission encountered many technical problems, from being hit by a solar flare to experiencing propulsion glitches. But each time an issue came up, the Japanese project team found an elegant solution to keep Hayabusa alive and bring it back to Earth - albeit three years late.

Start Quote

We're pretty confident there'll be something inside the spacecraft”

End Quote Dr Michael Zolensky Nasa Johnson Space Center

The re-entry on Sunday, at 1351 GMT, produced a spectacular fireball in the Australian night sky.

The main spacecraft broke apart in a shower of light.

As these bright streaks faded, a single point could then be seen racing to the ground. This was the capsule protected against the 3,000-degree heat generated in the fall by its carbon shield.

It took about an hour to locate the capsule by helicopter, its position tracked by radar and a beacon that was transmitting from inside the canister.

It was only when daylight came up on Monday, however, that a recovery team began to approach the 40cm-wide pod which was lying on the ground still attached to its parachute.

Hayabusa capsule on the ground (Jaxa) A helicopter found the capsule about an hour after the return

The heat-shield, which was dumped by the canister in the final moments before touch-down, was also located. Engineers will be keen to see how well it stood up to the 12km/s descent.

In the coming days, the capsule will be prepared for its transfer out of the country. Japanese, American and Australian scientists will open the canister in an ultra-clean, evacuated environment.

Woomera Prohibited Area

"The retrieved capsule will be transported to the Jaxa Sagamihara Campus in Kanagawa," Dr Keiji Tachikawa, the president of Jaxa, said in a statement.

"First, the sample container will be inspected, and then the content will be extracted for analysis. We hope to find the Itokawa's surface material in the capsule, and contribute to understanding the origin and evolution of the Solar System."

Even now, there is still some uncertainty as to whether the capsule really does contain pieces of Itokawa.

The Hayabusa spacecraft's capture mechanism was supposed to shoot a ball bearing at Itokawa when it landed to kick up rock inside a collection horn. An analysis of telemetry data suggests this mechanism may have malfunctioned at the crucial moment.

Nonetheless, scientists connected with the mission remain confident of success.

"It may have worked, it may not; we just don't know," said Dr Michael Zolensky from Nasa's Johnson Space Center.

"But even if it didn't work, the spacecraft landed for half an hour on the surface, and during that landing - it was a hard landing - it should have collected a sample even without firing anything. So, we're pretty confident there'll be something inside the spacecraft," he told BBC News.

BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos describes the dramatic re-entry

If that is confirmed, it would be the first time fragments of rock have been picked up off the surface of an asteroid and returned to Earth, and only the fourth extraterrestrial sample brought to our planet by a spacecraft.

Those other materials include the Moon rocks recovered by US and Soviet missions; cometary dust captured by the American Stardust probe; and particles in the "solar wind" returned by the Genesis spacecraft, also operated by the US.

Capsule recovered (AusSMC) The capsule is unloaded from the recovery helicopter in a packing box

But scientists caution it could be some weeks before the presence of any dust in the Hayabusa capsule can be established.

Professor Monica Grady, from the UK's Open University, said she hoped to get to work on some of the material.

"One of the great things about this type of science is that it is very collaborative," she told BBC News.

"Preliminary investigation teams will look to see what minerals the dust is made from, whether there is any carbon in there or any organics. And then scientists all over the world will be assigned very, very tiny amounts - just a few grains.

"Because the instruments we now have are so sophisticated, we only need a few grains to find out an awful lot of information."

Scientists hope the Itokawa samples will give them new insights into the make-up of asteroids and help them understand better the early history of the Solar System, which formed more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Rocks on Earth are useless for this purpose because they have been recycled many times through weathering and plate tectonic processes. Many asteroids, on the other hand, contain materials that have been altered little over the course of the past few billion years.

ASTEROID 25143 ITOKAWA - A 'PILE OF RUBBLE'

Asteroid Itokawa (Jaxa) Hayabusa returned astonishing images from its encounter with Itokawa

The 500m-long Itokawa has many boulders covering its surface

The biggest is 50m wide; it is nicknamed 'Yoshinodai'

Observations revealed Itokawa's density to be extremely low

Scientists say it is a pile of rubble that was produced in a collision

Gravity would have collected the debris into the object we now see

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