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Asteroid capsule recovered from Australian outback

Posted: June 14, 2010

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Japanese and Australian officials retrieved the Hayabusa re-entry capsule from the desert floor Monday, beginning months of tedious examinations to determine whether the container holds precious dust samples from the surface of an asteroid.

The 16-inch drum-shaped capsule from the Hayabusa mission in the Australian desert Monday. Credit: JAXA
Crews finished recovering the 16-inch-wide capsule from the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia around 0700 GMT (3 a.m. EDT) Monday.

Helicopters also found two pieces of the craft's heat shield nearby. The thermal protection system was jettisoned as the capsule deployed its parachute at an altitude of 6 miles.

Officials will retrieve the heat shield Tuesday to analyze how it performed during the high-speed re-entry, which reached temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hayabusa's capsule returned to Earth around 1400 GMT (10 a.m. EDT) Sunday, approaching Woomera from the northwest at more than 27,000 mph.

The main spacecraft, which released the capsule three hours before entry, burned up in Earth's atmosphere in a massive fireball lighting up central Australia.

The probe was designed to break up during re-entry because it was not protected by a heat shield.

Hayabusa completed a seven-year journey through the inner solar system, including a three-month visit of asteroid Itokawa, a small potato-shapead object that was 200 million miles from Earth in 2005.

"It is a great pleasure to see Hayabusa successfully complete the 6 billion km (3.7 billion mile) journey, after meeting extreme difficulties that put the spacecraft on the verge of shut down numerous times," said Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. "We, JAXA, would like to express our deepest gratitude to the Government of Australia, relevant people at the Woomera Prohibited Area, and NASA for their continued cooperation on the Hayabusa project. We would also like to thank the people of Japan and the world, Japanese government, and the media for their warm support and encouragement."

The spacecraft approached Itokawa several times, including a landing of approximately 30 minutes in November 2005.

Engineers studied telemetry from Hayabusa after its attempt to gather samples and discovered the spacecraft did not fire a projectile into the asteroid. The gun-like system was supposed to blast loose rocks through a funnel leading to the sample collection chamber.

Japanese managers remained hopeful some dust ended up in the container, but officials won't know for sure until the capsule is returned to Japan for months of analysis.

A charter plane is expected to fly the capsule from Australia to Tokyo this week. It will be examined in a special ultra-clean curation facility at JAXA's Sagamihara campus near Tokyo.

"Opening the capsule will take place within a few weeks of arrival here. We must take the utmost care to open the capsule. It takes a lot of time to study the samples because they will probably be in fine particles," said Junichiro Kawaguchi, Hayabusa's project manager, in an interview Friday.

If there is dust inside the capsule, scientists must thoroughly study the samples to determine if they are from the asteroid or contamination from Earth.

"We have to distinguish from the asteroid-borne samples from the ground particles," Kawaguchi said before re-entry. "It isn't an easy task, and it will take a lot of time, at least one month and probably several months."

"We hope to find the Itokawa's surface material in the capsule, and contribute to understanding the origin and evolution of the solar system," Tachikawa said in a statement.