Yes, the Hayabusa mission’s sample container captured some tiny dust particles. No, we still don’t know whether those particles are the first bits of an asteroid ever returned to Earth by a spacecraft.
Scientists from Japan’s space agency, JAXA, have slowly and cautiously been prying open Hayabusa’s container. They have released photos that show particles trapped in there, none of which are larger than a millimeter, but at least 10 of which are visible to the naked eye. However, it may take months to know whether those came from the Itokawa asteroid that Hayabusa visited, or somewhere else.
Hayabusa project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi said scientists believed materials from Earth were among the particles found in the pod. “But it’s important that it wasn’t empty… I’m glad that there is the possibility” that some are from the asteroid, Kawaguchi told a press briefing [AFP].
The tension is high for the project scientists: If Hayabusa succeeded, it would be the first space mission to land on an asteroid and bring home samples, but the craft was hampered by numerous troubles. Launched in 2003, Hayabusa visited the asteroid in 2005. But when it descended to the asteroid’s surface, its collection system—designed to fire a projectile to kick up dust for collection—failed.
But Jaxa officials are still confident of success. They say a lot of dust would have been kicked up when Hayabusa landed on the space rock to make the grab, and some of this material must have found its way inside the probe [BBC News].
After that there was no guarantee Hayabusa would even make it home. Technical and engine failures delayed its return for years, until JAXA maneuvered it home last month. Hayabusa burned up in the atmosphere and dropped its sample container down to the Australian outback, and JAXA scientists have been delicately opening it ever since.
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