Japanese space capsule recovered – but is there anything inside?

Japan’s Hayabusa mission, the first to collect samples from an asteroid, made a successful return to earth last night in the Australian outback.

After a seven-year, four billion-mile journey, Hayabusa released a capsule containing samples from the Itokawa asteroid, while the spacecraft itself burned up in the atmosphere.

Today, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that it has retrieved the capsule and that it appears to be intact. It hasn’t yet found the heat shield.

The scientists don’t know for sure, though, whether the capsule actually contains the samples it was sent to collect. JAXA is unsure whether the sample collector worked as planned, and says the chances that there’s actually anything in the capsule are roughly fifty-fifty. It may be some weeks before the presence of material is confirmed.

The mission has had a number of problems, including damaged engines, control wheels and storage batteries, leading to a three-year delay to Hayabusa’s return.

The Itokawa asteroid is around 535m across, and is made up of several smaller bodies. Analysis of the sample – if one exists – will, scientists hope, provide information on how and when the asteroid was formed, its physical properties and what other bodies it may have been in contact with.

There’s a NASA video of Hayabusa’s reentry, here.