Video: Asteroid probe returns to Earth

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/13/2010 11:08:30 PM ET 2010-06-14T03:08:30

A fiery burst of light over the Australian Outback late Sunday marked the return of a Japanese space probe, potentially carrying samples from an asteroid that could offer insights into the creation and makeup of the solar system.

It was the first time that a spacecraft successfully landed on an asteroid and returned to Earth.

After traveling 4 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) in seven years, the Hayabusa explorer incinerated on re-entry after jettisoning a capsule expected to contain the first asteroid dust ever collected.

"We just had a spectacular display out over the outback skies of South Australia," The Associated Press quoted Trevor Ireland, the only Australian scientist on the Hayabusa team, as saying. "We could see the little sample return capsule separate from the main ship and lead its way in, and (we) just had this magnificent display of the breakup of Hayabusa."

An Australian defense official told Reuters the display "was like a shooting star with a starburst behind it. It was fantastic."

The capsule parachuted to Earth within the Woomera Prohibited Area, a remote military zone 300 miles (485 kilometers) northwest of the South Australian state capital of Adelaide.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it had confirmed the position of the fallen capsule, and recovery would take place on Monday. The capsule will be sealed in an airtight vessel and taken to Japan for study.

Hayabusa, the $200 million project launched by the Japanese space agency in 2003, landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and is believed to have collected samples of material from the surface that may shed light on the solar system's origin and evolution.

Because of problems experienced during the landing, it's not certain whether the probe was able to collect as much material as it was designed to do. Nevertheless, scientists hope at least that the Hayabusa sample capsule contains flecks of asteroid dust that were picked up during the encounter.

JAXA
A fish-eye view of the night sky over Australia, provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, shows the fireball created by the Hayabusa probe's atmospheric re-entry late Sunday.
Researchers want to study how and when the asteroid was formed, its physical properties, what other bodies it may have been in contact with, and how solar wind and radiation have affected it.

Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007 but a series of technical glitches — including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of electricity-storing batteries — forced it to miss its window to maneuver into the Earth's orbit until this year.

If Hayabusa is indeed carrying asteroid samples, it would be only the fourth type of space sample returned to Earth in history — a short list that also includes moon rocks and soil collected by the Apollo missions, cometary material from the Stardust mission, and solar-wind particles from the Genesis mission.

Preliminary analysis of the samples will be carried out by the team of Japanese, American and Australian scientists in Japan. After one year, scientists around the world can apply for access to the asteroid material for research.

JAXA
An aerial photograph shows the Hayabusa sample return capsule, seemingly intact, along with its parachute in the Australian Outback.

This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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