You may remember the fuss surrounding the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) brave little spacecraft that could, Hayabusa, some months back. Hayabusa was to visit asteroid Itokawa, collect specimens and bring them back. Unfortunately it suffered setback after setback as numerous hardware failures began accumulating. The engineering crew responsible for guiding and operating Hayabusa worked a miracle in helping the robotic probe to not only reach the asteroid successfully, but collect samples and limp home. The mission finally ended in June this year when it burned up in the atmosphere above Australia after releasing the sample capsule to parachute down to earth.
The world has waited in anticipation since then; it was by no means certain that any actual material from the asteroid had been scooped into the sample cannisters. But JAXA has now confirmed that the cannister contains a number of dust grains that definitely come from the asteroid. Using very sensitive and delicate procedures, JAXA anounced that they collected about 1500 particles from the asteroid, and that they are around one hundredth of a millimeter across. This means that there isn’t actually much material to work with and any geology lab trying to analyse it will struggle, but what matters is that we have this material at all!
Additionally, there is still a second container which has yet to be opened. It could potentially contain much more material, although the mission parameters were such that it could also be contaminated with material from Earth. So we wait and see!