ScienceShot: Asteroid Mission Returns to Earth

After a 7-year, 4-billion-kilometer roundtrip to touch down on asteroid Itokawa, Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft has returned to Earth. Burning up as it reentered our atmosphere (main picture), the craft dropped its sample capsule (inset)—just maybe carrying asteroid dust—onto the Australian outback around midnight local time. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced late in the afternoon today in Tokyo that the intact capsule had been retrieved. It will be returned to JAXA labs near Tokyo for opening, no doubt while anxious researchers hold their breaths. If the capsule contains asteroid fragments or dust, it will be the first samples returned from an asteroid. NASA's DC-8 airborne laboratory captured the spacecraft's fiery demise on video. The Planetary Society has posted additional photos and information.

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