Hiding a tantalising payload? Image: JAXA.
A Japanese-built probe designed to explore outer space and gather asteroid samples made a spectacular return to Earth on Sunday, dazzling scientists and onlookers as it burnt up in the night skies above Australia.
Prior to its fiery return, the Hayabusa spacecraft had spent seven years probing the solar system, during which time it safely landed upon the 500-metre Itokawa asteroid in an attempt to gather important scientific surface samples.
Researchers eager to study any successfully stowed materials retrieved the craft’s all-imported capsule on Monday from the remote Australian Outback – the capsule itself was protected during re-entry by a special carbon heat shield.
Seemingly intact and still attached to its descent parachute, the capsule was transported by a helicopter team to a waiting control centre at the nearby Woomera Prohibited Area. Following preliminary inspection, the capsule and its contents will be shipped to Tokyo for further study.
The stunning images of Hayabusa breaking up as it hurtled through the atmosphere were captured by NASA’s flying DC-8 laboratory, which was equipped for the event with special high-speed cameras and imaging equipment, along with representatives from NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
According to a statement given by JAXA president Dr. Keiji Tachikawa, it is hoped that in-depth analysis of the capsule’s contents will enable scientists to form a better understanding of the solar system’s origins and evolution.