Image: Japan's Hayabusa landing on the asteroid Itokawa
©Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA
An artist's concept of Japan's Hayabusa landing on the asteroid Itokawa.
updated 6/9/2010 9:55:43 PM ET 2010-06-10T01:55:43

A NASA flying observatory has left California on a mission to track a Japanese asteroid-sampling spacecraft as it returns to Earth on a course for Australia.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center says its DC-8 airborne lab left Palmdale Tuesday evening, carrying scientists from the U.S. and Japanese space agencies and other organizations.

The group will study the meteor-like plunge of the Hyabusa spacecraft, which visited the asteroid Itokawa during a seven-year mission and is carrying a capsule that may contain a sample from the space rock.

The spacecraft will break up, but the capsule is targeted to land in Australia's Woomera Prohibited Area at about 7 a.m. PDT Sunday.

Japanese controllers overcame major problems with Hyabusa's ion engines and a loss of communications to put the craft on a return course.

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