Last night Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft ended its seven-year mission to asteroid Itokawa, bursting into flames over the South Australian outback. The space craft, however, released its sample return canister before bursting into flames, which survived the re-entry into earth's atmosphere.
According to Australian National University scientist Trevor Ireland, who watched the spectacle from the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy, the burn up resembled a meteor.
|The Hayabusa flying to the ITOKAWA (Artist's Concept) By Akihiro Ikeshita |
The pod touched down in a parachute in the Woomera Prohibited Area and was located by its onboard radio beacon. It will be sealed in an airtight container for return to Tokyo, where the Japanese space agency (JAXA) will find out if there's any sample from Itokawa inside.
However, whether anything from Itokawa is inside the capsule remains to be seen, since the Hayabusa mission was beset by technical problems.
The spacecraft landed on Itokawa in November 2005 at a distance of 186 million miles (300 million km) from Earth. The spacecraft was supposed to shoot ball bearings into the surface and collect the resulting dust, but it is not clear whether this actually happened.
Malfunction of the chemical thrusters almost sent Hayabusa on a never-ending lonely space trek until JAXA engineers were able to save it, thanks to two functioning ion engines and get it back on track for a belated return to its planet of origin.
Even if the canister turns out to be empty, the mission nevertheless has proved enlightening as the spacecraft has shown that the 535-metre asteroid is not a solid body, but rather a lump of rubble resulting from an earlier asteroid collision.
If the canister does contain any dust or rock from Itokawa, scientists say it would contribute to gaining a better understanding of the origin and development of the solar system, according to Ireland.
The completion of the $229-million mission flags a significant milestone in the development of the Japanese space industry according to experts. Japan is looking to double the size of its space industry from 7 trillion yen to 15 trillion yen by 2020 according to a government report released in May said.
|Names of craters and places on ITOKAWA (Images were taken by the Hayabusa) By Jaxa/ University of aizu |
According to Ireland, even a few specks of dust will given scientists a fantastic opportunity to look back 4.5 billion years as unlike the earth, asteroids are not geologically active so the rock is just like it was when the solar system was formed.
Asteroid pieces that fall to earth as meteorites are however altered by high temperatures while entering the atmosphere.
Ireland said the fact that any sample hasn't been directly exposed to the atmosphere is what makes this special.
However, whether the capsule actually contains anything remains the million-dollar question.