Scientists have recovered part of a Japanese space probe that returned to Earth after landing on an asteroid to collect samples, and they're preparing to open it. At least The Andromeda Strain inspired them to wear helmets and body armor.
The sample container from the Hayabusa probe parachuted to a soft landing in the Australian Outback on Sunday. The fridge-size probe burned up in spectacular fashion on reentry (see the NASA video below).
There was no damage to the mushroom-shaped container, and the probe's heat shield was also found, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Hayabusa had several technical problems on its seven-year journey, including a malfunctioning sample-retrieval mechanism. But JAXA officials hope it managed to kick up bits of asteroid Itokawa when it landed on the space rock twice in 2005. Such samples could shed light on the origins of the solar system.
The capsule was airlifted to Woomera and is expected to be shipped to the JAXA Sagamihara Campus outside Tokyo. Scientists will first inspect it, and then analyze any content in the sample chamber. JAXA official Seiichi Sakamoto said there was about a 50 percent chance that Hayabusa retrieved samples.
The probe's sample container can hold up to 10 milligrams of material. "We'll be very happy if we get a cubic millimeter back," Trevor Ireland, a planetary scientist at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, was quoted as saying by National Geographic News. "That's much smaller than a match head."
It could take weeks or months for scientists to determine with certainty whether Hayabusa returned asteroid dust. It would be the fourth successful sample return trip following the Apollo moon missions, the Genesis solar wind mission, and the Stardust comet mission.
JAXA has meanwhile asked Guinness World Records to recognize Hayabusa's flight as the first round-trip voyage to a heavenly body other than the moon, and the longest round-trip flight. With an overall cost of $200 million, the probe was launched in May 2003 and traveled some 4 billion miles.
Or, as Carl Sagan would say, billions and billions of miles. Let's hope we at least get a good sci-fi film out of this.
(Via Gizmodo Japan)