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First ever asteroid minerals brought to Earth

It was the mission that was destined to fail. Hit by a solar flare, encountering technical glitches and arriving home three years late, the chance of the Hayabusa probe returning any useful information from the Itokowa asteroid were incredibly slim.

Amazingly, however, it was confirmed today that the probe did not just manage to land on an asteroid and take off, the first man-made spacecraft to do so; it also returned unprecedented extraterrestrial samples.

It is hoped the samples will be able to provide answers for some of the great mysteries of our universe such as what materials planets and asteroids are made of, and what elements made the solar system when the planets were born.

The achievement is a huge milestone for the astronomical community and especially the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), who had endured an agonising wait while the samples contained in the probe were confirmed to be of another cosmic object.

But it was worth it in the end and Junichiro Kawaguchi, the project manager on the mission, summed up the general feeling: “I don’t know how to describe what has been beyond our dreams, but I’m overwhelmed by emotion.”


The video above shows Hayabusa’s re-entry

The probe was launched on May 9 2003 from the Kagoshima Space Centre. Three weeks later, using its ion engine, the probe began the journey to the Itokawa asteroid. On September 12 2005 the probe arrived 20km away from Itokawa, and touched down on the surface two months later in November 2005. It released a capsule which contained 880,000 autographs from people on Earth.

In December of 2005, however, controllers lost contact with the probe. They finally resumed communication in January 2006, but did not begin productive operations for another year, when the recovery capsule made an attempt at getting a sample from the asteroid. The capsule was designed to fire a ball-bearing into the surface and eject dust into a catcher, but this system failed. It has now transpired that the dust disturbed by the landing of the probe alone was enough for the capsule to return a sample.

The probe began its journey home in February 2007 and, despite an engine malfunction, the probe re-entered our atmosphere on June 13 2010. Although particles were initially found in the sample container, it was unknown if they were from the Earth or the asteroid. Thankfully, today they were confirmed as being of the asteroid Itokawa.