Asteroid Sample Returning to Earth

Hayabusa probe hovering

An artist's impression of Japan's space probe Hayabusa and an asteroid, called Itokawa

Scientists are anxiously awaiting the return of Hayabusa – Japanese for “Falcon” – in the hope that the probe has successfully gathered tiny fragments of space rock, which could provide more clues about the origin of the solar system.

Hayabusa, which weighs about half a ton and is similar in size to a family car, was launched in May 2003 with the objective of intercepting an asteroid named Itokawa, gathering a sample from the surface and then returning to Earth. It has covered 1.2bn miles on its journey and is due to land in the Australian outback on Sunday night.

However, the voyage has not been smooth sailing.

Hayabusa neared the 590 yard-long asteroid in September 2005 and made a successful landing. But it failed to fire a projectile into the surface of the asteroid that was designed to kick up dust which could then be collected.

Researchers are yet to learn just how much of the surface debris has been gathered by the unmanned spacecraft. But Nasa’s Michael Zolensky said as little as a few grams of the dust would be a boon for scientists around the world.

Asteroids can give scientists insight into the origin and evolution of a solar system and the formation of planets.

As well as it’s primary objective, Hayabusa has a second mission. Scientists hope that the craft’s re-entry will teach them more about the likely trajectories of asteroids that could collide with the Earth.

“We will monitor its movements and the data will enable us to accurately predict the future paths of asteroids that are on course to come close to the Earth,” said Akinori Hashimoto, a spokesman for JAXA, the Japanese space agency.

“It is very important that we develop accurate ways to predict where asteroids are going to strike because even small ones can cause a great deal of damage,” said Mr Hashimoto, pointing to the devastation caused in June 1908, when a comet measuring about 60 metres in diameter exploded about seven miles above Siberia.

Authorities in southern Australia are currently making preparations for Hayabusa’s return, which is predicted to take place at around 11:30pm on Sunday. Police have closed a stretch of the Stuart Highway between Cooper Pedy and Glendambo to make sure that no passersby are hit by the incoming capsule.

The craft is expected to touch down in the Woomera Prohibited Area, a weapons testing range about 250 miles north of Adelaide. Once it enters the atmosphere it will be followed by a chaser plane to help pinpoint its exact landing site. The probe will then be picked up and sent back to Japan where the samples will be examined.



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