Five years after touching down on a distant asteroid, Japan's Hayabusa space probe returned to Earth on Sunday, landing in the Australian Outback after a spectacular fireball.
Officials at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) aren't sure whether the probe managed to collect samples from asteroid Itokawa after its three-month rendezvous with the small space rock in 2005. They would be the first samples returned from the surface of an asteroid.
The probe burned up on reentry, streaking through the night sky (see pic here), and Hayabusa's heat-resistant container landed with the aid of a parachute in South Australia's Woomera Prohibited Range.
Launched on an M-V-5 Rocket from the Kagoshima Space Center in 2003, Hayabusa (which means "falcon" in Japanese) had a series of problems with its ion engines, communications, and other equipment. But it met Itokawa, some 186 million miles from Earth in November 2005. Malfunctions delayed its return to our planet by three years.
The probe's sample capture mechanism failed when Hayabusa landed on the asteroid, but JAXA officials believe it may have kicked up sand that entered the container. Officials are now recovering the container to check for material.
The container will be analyzed after its transfer to Japan, but researchers could take weeks or months before being able to announce with certainty whether samples were retrieved. Their hope is that asteroid samples will improve our understanding of the solar system's origins.