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.