Scientists recovered a Japanese space capsule that landed in the Australian Outback after it traveled to an asteroid and hopefully obtained samples with clues into the evolution of the solar system.
The Hayabusa explorer returned to Earth overnight Monday 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 (see videos below). It was the first time a spacecraft successfully landed on an asteroid and returned to Earth.
Seiichi Sakamoto of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which launched the explorer in 2003, said they were "delighted" to recover the capsule, particularly after a number of technical problems delayed Hayabusa's arrival for three years.
"It was an extremely difficult technological challenge, and we did everything to overcome the troubles one by one," he said. "This is an achievement we could make simply because we never gave up hope."
NASA posted a stunning video of Hayabusa's reentry. The video's caption explains how the footage was obtained:
A group of astronomers from NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other organizations had a front row seat to observe the Hayabusa spacecraft's fiery plunge into Earth's atmosphere. The team flew aboard NASA's DC-8 airborne laboratory, packed with cameras and other imaging instruments, to capture the high-speed re-entry over an unpopulated area of central Australia on June 13, 2010. The Japanese spacecraft completed its seven-year, 1.25 billion mile journey to return a sample of the asteroid Itokawa.
As NASA notes, the breakup of the Hayabusa appears on the left-hand side of the video. The "steady pinpoint of light" that shoots forward in a straight line, separately from the debris, is the sample return canister.
Learn more about the Hayabusa space capsule and see its reentry: