Lunar and Planetary Institute
Lunar and Planetary Institute



Hayabusa Capsule Recovered Intact

June 16, 2010
Source:  NASA

The Hayabusa capsule has been recovered following its landing in the Australian Outback. Scientists hope the samples contained in the capsule will give them new insights into the make-up of asteroids and help them better understand the early history of the solar system, which formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. Credit:  JAXA.A Japanese space capsule that may contain asteroid dust was recovered from the Australian Outback on June 14, hours after its parent craft ended a seven-year mission in a spectacular fireball.

The capsule, along with its mother ship, visited a near-Earth asteroid, Itokawa, five years ago and has logged about 2 billion kilometers (1.25 billion miles) since its launch in May 2003.

With the return of the Hayabusa capsule, which occurred at Australia’s remote Woomera Test Range in South Australia, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has concluded a remarkable mission of exploration — one in which NASA scientists and engineers have played a contributing role.

“Hayabusa is the first space mission to have made physical contact with an asteroid and returned to Earth,” said Tommy Thompson, NASA’s Hayabusa project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The mission and its team have faced and overcome several challenges over the past seven years. This round-trip journey is a significant space achievement and one which NASA is proud to be part of.”

Launched May 9, 2003, from the Kagoshima Space Center in Uchinoura, Japan, Hayabusa was designed as a flying testbed. Its mission:  to research several new engineering technologies necessary for returning planetary samples to Earth for further study. With Hayabusa, JAXA scientists and engineers hoped to obtain detailed information on electrical propulsion and autonomous navigation, as well as an asteroid sampler and sample reentry capsule.

The 510-kilogram (950-pound) Hayabusa spacecraft rendezvoused with asteroid Itokawa in September 2005. Over the next two-and-a-half months, the spacecraft made up-close and personal scientific observations of the asteroid’s shape, terrain, surface altitude distribution, mineral composition, gravity, and the way it reflected the Sun’s rays. On November 25 of that year, Hayabusa briefly touched down on the surface of Itokawa. That was only the second time in history a spacecraft descended to the surface of an asteroid (NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous-Shoemaker spacecraft landed on asteroid Eros on February 12, 2001). Hayabusa marked the first attempt to sample asteroid surface material.

The spacecraft departed Itokawa in January 2007. The road home for the technology demonstrator has been a long one, with several anomalies encountered along the way. But now the spacecraft has returned to its home planet.

The data acquired by the descent team should help evaluate how thermal protection systems behave during these super-speedy spacecraft reentries. This, in turn, will help engineers understand what a sample return capsule returning from Mars would undergo. The Hayabusa sample return capsule reentry observation was similar to earlier observations of NASA’s Stardust capsule return, and the reentry of the European Space Agency’s ATV-1 (“Jules Verne”) automated transfer vehicle.

Soon after the sample return capsule touched down on the ground, Hayabusa team members were scheduled to retrieve it and transport it to JAXA’s sample curatorial facility in Sagamihara, Japan. There, Japanese astromaterials scientists, assisted by two scientists from NASA and one from Australia, will perform a preliminary cataloging and analysis of the capsule’s contents.

“This preliminary analysis follows the basic protocols used for Apollo moon rocks, Genesis and Stardust samples,” said Mike Zolensky, a scientist at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “If this capsule contains samples from the asteroid, we expect it will take a year to determine the primary characteristics of the samples, and learn how to best handle them. Then the samples will be distributed to scientists worldwide for more detailed analysis.”

“The Japanese and NASA engineers and scientists involved in Hayabusa’s return from asteroid Itokawa are proud of their collaboration and their joint accomplishments,” said Thompson. “Certainly, any samples retrieved from Itokawa will provide exciting new insights to understanding the early history of the solar system. This will be the icing on the cake, as this mission has already taught us so much.”

For more information about the Hayabusa mission, visit

Asteroid Exploration Hayabusa (MUSES-C) Mission

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Last updated June 16, 2010