Hayabusa’s sample return capsule has been opened and it contains… something! The Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa mission did not have an easy journey. Intended, amongst other things, to travel to the remote asteroid Itokawa to collect samples and return them to Earth, the plucky spacecraft suffered multiple equipment failures. The revolutionary ion engines failed, the attitude control gyro’s seized up one by one, even the Minerva mini-robot (intended to scope out the asteroid before Hayabusa landed) didn’t work.
Compensating for these equipment problems were an incredibly dedicated and bright team of scientists and engineers back on earth. As each problem arose, they patiently re-worked mission parameters to find a way to use the probe’s remaining abilities to try and complete the mission. Thanks to their hard work, Hayabusa managed to limp home, years late but still on target. The final question remaining was whether any pieces of the asteroid had actually been collected. After the probe re-entered the atmosphere above Australia last month, the world held its breath waiting for the capsule to be opened.
That day has now arrived and the results are frustratingly inconclusive. The outside of the capsule has a number of sand grains (about 1mm in diameter) sticking to it, but these were probably picked up from the ground after landing. They will still be analysed and tested because the possibility remains that some of them may have been picked up from Hayabusa but this seems optimistic!
Inside the cannister (pictured left) were only a few of the finest dust particles were found. These particles are about a hundredth of a millimetre across and now the question has been raised as to just how clean the cannister was before launch. It would be tragic to find that Hayabusa completed its epic journey only to have achieved nothing more than shuttling dust from Earth into space and back again, but this is exactly the possibility that the mission scientists are trying to eliminate. So once more we wait impatiently, praying for good news!