A Japanese space probe has landed in the Australian outback after a seven-year voyage to an asteroid, safely returning a capsule containing a unique sample of dust, Japanese mission controllers said Monday.
The Hayabusa probe blazed a spectacular trail over Australia before slamming into the desert around midnight local time, ending a journey to the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa that began in 2003.
A spokesman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) told Reuters the first image available indicated the capsule carrying the precious cargo had survived.
After sunrise, Australian defense officials flew local Aboriginal elders to the site by helicopter to verify that no sacred sites had been damaged. A defense spokesman said the indigenous leaders had cleared the way for the capsule to be recovered later Monday.
Hayabusa, which means falcon in Japanese, landed on the irregularly shaped asteroid in 2005 and scientists think it managed to pick up a small sample of material. If successful, it would be the first time a spacecraft has brought such a sample back to Earth, other than from our own moon.
Scientists hope it could unlock secrets of the solar system's formation and shed light on the risk to Earth from asteroid impacts.
NASA scientist Paul Abell, who monitored the return, said Hayabusa was significant in terms of planetary defense, bearing in mind an asteroid impact is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.
Knowing the physical characteristics of near-Earth asteroids would be useful "in case we see something coming at us in the future", he said. As leftover matter from the building of the solar system, he added, asteroids could also tell us about its formation and possibly the origins of life.
"It has actually gone really well. It is a very significant event," he told Reuters.
JAXA spokesman Makoto Miwada told Reuters that the first photo of the capsule, with a diameter of just 15.75 inches and a height of just 7.874 inches, was very encouraging.
"We have only one photo and it looks very safe," he said.
Much of the probe burned up spectacularly in the atmosphere, as planned, and the capsule could clearly be seen separating, witnesses said.
"It was like a shooting star with a starburst behind it. It was fantastic," one witness said.
Teams from NASA were deployed to watch the 1,100-pound craft's return to the Woomera weapons testing range in South Australia state. A long stretch of central Australia's main north-south Stuart Highway was closed for safety reasons.
The asteroid Itokawa is an irregularly shaped object measuring just over 500 yards at its longest.
Planetary scientist Trevor Ireland told Reuters the dust sample could shed light on the "missing link" between asteroids and meteorites that fall to Earth.
Analysis of the capsule's contents will be carried out in Japan and is expected to take at least six months.