Japan’s intrepid Hayabusa asteroid probe has landed in the Australian desert after a 7-year, 6-billion-kilometre journey through deep space.
Three hours before re-entry, the basketball-sized sample return capsule was detached from the mothercraft. Both the capsule and the mothercraft hit the atmosphere just before midnight, Australian time, streaking through the sky and putting on a spectacular fireworks show.
The main fireworks came from the Hayabusa mothercraft which, not having a heat shield to protect it, began burning and breaking up in dramatic fashion.
Visible just below and to the right, was a tiny dot — the heat shield-protected sample return capsule.
Once through the heating process, and having descended further into the atmosphere, a parachute was deployed and the capsule floated to the ground. The capsule has a radio beacon that will guide the recovery team to its location.
Once collected, the capsule will be sent back to Japan to be opened very gingerly. Scientists are hoping it will contain some samples of asteroid Itokawa, which Hayabusa encountered in 2005. Even if a few dust grains were collected, it will be tremendous achievement.
Images courtesy NASA/ SETI Institute / University of North Dakota.