Japanese scientists say a capsule containing a unique sample of asteroid dust survived re-entry following a seven-year journey in space. Researchers are recovering the probe, which landed in the Australian outback, and will take it back to Japan for examination.
The Hayabusa probe blazed in the Australian night sky before crashing into the desert near the Woomera military zone, ending a seven-year, five billion-kilometer journey.
Most the Japanese spacecraft, which was the size of a small car, burned up on re-entry. But researchers Monday were recovering a small capsule that may contain valuable samples from the asteroid Itokawa.
The project could give researchers important clues as to how Earth might be protected from asteroid strikes and provide crucial data on the origins of the solar system and the formation of planets.
Officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are optimistic that the mission's aim of collecting asteroid dust has been successful.
Dr. Doug Gerrie, the director of the Woomera test area, says the project overcame many challenges.
"This particular story was spectacular before it went wrong and then the technical problems that JAXA had and the amazing work that they did to overcome them and get this spacecraft back through the exact window in the atmosphere that they needed to get it through, it is a story of scientific persistence beyond belief," he said.
The asteroid Itokawa is an irregularly shaped object and measures just over 500 meters in length.
Analysis of the capsule's contents is expected to take at least six months.
It will remain sealed until it arrives at the JAXA facility near Tokyo, for examination by scientists from Japan, Australia and the United States.