A team of scientists flew to the Australian Outback on Monday to recover a Japanese space capsule they hope contains the first-ever asteroid samples that could provide clues into the creation of the solar system.
The Hayabusa explorer returned to Earth overnight after a seven-year, 4-billion mile (6-billion kilometer) journey, burning apart on re-entry in a spectacular fireball just after jettisoning the capsule. It was the first time a spacecraft successfully landed on an asteroid and returned to Earth.
NASA scientist Scott Sandford said it was a relief to watch the re-entry and see the capsule had successfully detached and parachuted to Earth.
“During a mission critical event like a re-entry, there’s a whole series of things you’ve got to get right to make it work, and they all seemed to have come off without a hitch,” said Sandford, an astrophysicist and one of the team members who will research the samples. “It’s a great testament to the design and operation of the spacecraft.”