Asteroid probe back after 7yrs

2010-06-13 22:27

Sydney - A Japanese space probe, which scientists hope is carrying a sample from an asteroid, has returned to Earth, blazing a spectacular trail across the sky in the Australian outback, witnesses said on Monday.

The Hayabusa probe is returning home after a seven-year mission which took it to the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, on which it landed in 2005.

Scientists hope it has brought back a sample, the first time one has come back to Earth from any other world, except our own Moon.

An Australian defence official speaking from the area told Reuters on Monday the probe lit up the sky as it returned on schedule around midnight local time (14:30 GMT) over the Woomera weapons testing range in South Australia state.

"It was like a shooting star with a starburst behind it. It was fantastic," the official told Reuters by telephone, saying officials were on their way to discover its exact landing site and retrieve its contents.

Teams from Nasa in a flying laboratory have been deployed to watch the craft's arrival, along with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which sent the 500kg probe on its mission in 2003.

Aboriginal elders

Stretches of central Australia's main north-south Stuart Highway were closed for the probe's return. The first people to see it will include local Aboriginal elders, who will make sure it has not damaged any sites sacred to the area's indigenous people.

Itokawa is an irregularly shaped asteroid which measures just over 500 metres at its longest.

Scientists hope Hayabusa - whose name means 'falcon' in Japanese - will give them information about the formation of asteroids, while it is also a test for new technology which could be used to return other space samples to Earth in the future.

After recovery, the contents of a capsule thought to contain the asteroid sample are later to be moved to Japan for analysis.